Pakistan held indirect elections on March 3 for the Senate, its upper house of Parliament, which is elected by sitting legislators in the National Assembly (the lower house of Parliament) and each of the provincial assemblies. Given the typically party-line vote, Pakistani Senate elections tend to be mundane affairs, with the results often preordained. However, in last week’s elections the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, despite having a numerical majority in the national and provincial assemblies, failed to forestall defections among some lawmakers and in doing so failed to take control of the Senate from the opposition.

Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan at his residence in Islamabad, April 9, 2019. (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)
Prime Minister Imran Khan of Pakistan at his residence in Islamabad, April 9, 2019. (Saiyna Bashir/The New York Times)

This surprise outcome emboldened the opposition parties to seek a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Imran Khan. Before they could seek to unseat his government, Khan pre-emptively pushed for a confidence vote and won it handily. USIP’s Pakistan experts look at the latest developments in Pakistan’s turbulent domestic politics.

The ruling party’s narrow loss of a heavily contested Islamabad Senate seat, suggests that the PTI government may lack a reliable or unified majority in the National Assembly. Despite easily winning a confidence motion, what does this Senate upset reveal about the strength of the ruling coalition?

Salikuddin: The surprising and historic inability of the PTI-led coalition government to secure a majority (and losing an important Islamabad seat to boot) in the Senate is the largest political setback in its two- and half-year tenure. Khan’s vote of confidence (a vote that is an open ballot as opposed to the secret one for the Senate) shows that he has the numbers to maintain his government, but the whole incident has emboldened the opposition to continue to seek ways to weaken it. The willingness of PTI parliamentarians and allies to defect opens the doors for continued horse trading and party-switching, which will intensify if the political calculus becomes that the government will not survive its five-year tenure. The next test may come in seeking a no-confidence vote in the Provincial Assembly of Punjab, where the PTI government is particularly unpopular and in a precarious coalition. A government that is already being criticized for its inability to deliver will be further distracted in trying to maintain its governing coalition both at the center and in the provinces.

In the weeks and months leading up to the Senate elections, the PTI government sought to introduce electoral reforms that would have mandated an open ballot vote, with Khan and others accusing the opposition of bribing lawmakers to switch their votes. What explains the apparent instances of defections here?

Siddiqui and Rafiq: Dissatisfaction among and emerging factions within the PTI parliamentarians were apparent in the results of the Senate elections, and the secret ballot format provided party members in the National Assembly cover to defect, whether it was a vote of conscience or due to an element of corruption. Members of Parliament across the board, but PTI in particular, are facing growing public pressure due to rising inflation and unemployment, with the COVID pandemic and an expected third wave exacerbating the situation. Several parliamentarians are likely looking ahead to 2023 for alternative political vehicles to bolster their re-election chances.

The process for Senate elections is delineated in Pakistan’s constitution. So, the earlier efforts by the PTI government to gain greater oversight over its members’ votes by changing the election procedure from a secret to an open ballot through ordinances and court petitions was an uphill battle, coming as it did so close to the election. In his nationally televised address after the elections, Khan gave a scathing rebuke of Election Commission of Pakistan (the ECP, which manages Pakistan’s elections), arguing that by not allowing for a process to identify who cast which ballot, the ECP saved criminals and “provided an opportunity for the country's democracy to be discredited.” The ECP countered with a surprisingly strong statement noting that the Senate elections were conducted within the confines of the law and that “the mudslinging should stop.” This sets up a potential future conflict between the government and the election administrators over future electoral reform measures that the PTI government may seek to push through before the next general elections are held.

Opposition parties have been mobilizing in street protests for the past several months against the PTI government and had earlier announced plans for a large march on the capital later this month. Is the opposition win in the Senate elections likely to lead to a shift away from street confrontations to working through the elected Parliament instead?

Cookman: The opposition parties held together in the Senate elections, boycotted the government’s confidence vote, and are now focused on upcoming votes to fill leadership positions in the Senate. While they are united in their opposition to the current PTI government, the different parties that comprise the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM) umbrella opposition coalition each have different bases of political support, and there has been a continual push and pull within the movement over how to achieve their goal of ousting Khan. Parts of the PDM are gearing up for a march on Islamabad, but successes in the Senate will likely strengthen the position of those parties who would prefer to try and split the PTI’s governing coalition in the Punjab provincial government through negotiation rather than confrontation, at least in the near term. The question now is whether the government or opposition coalition will prove the more vulnerable to fracture going forward.

What other impacts will the Senate elections have on Pakistan’s domestic political situation?

Olson: The most prominent casualty of the Senate elections was Dr. Abdul Hafeez Sheikh, who was defeated by Pakistan Peoples Party stalwart Yousaf Raza Gilani. Sheikh had been serving as an advisor for finance (i.e., de facto minister). The Pakistani courts have taken a dim view of non-elected officials serving in ministerial capacity and running him for the Senate was an attempt to regularize his status. Sheikh is a well-respected technocrat who is well known in international financial circles and has good ties with the military establishment. Khan has signaled support for Sheikh, who under existing special legislation, can continue as finance minister until June. That could give PTI time to jury rig a political solution (e.g., inducing an existing PTI senator to resign and running Sheikh to fill the vacancy), but the broader question is how Khan will manage the populist tendency within his party that this episode revealed. Sheikh was clearly not in the same political weight class as Gilani, but he also may have been weakened by his association with the International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity program when much of the PTI rank and file believe in an Islamic welfare state. As the PTI government pursues a policy of “economic security” this tension will have to be resolved or bridged.

What implications do these elections have for Pakistan’s civil-military balance and Pakistan’s security or foreign policy priorities?

Salikuddin: The military establishment, which the opposition has accused of meddling in politics, remained largely on the sidelines for the Senate elections. This perceived neutrality will help the establishment avoid being the subject of the upcoming opposition march. Additionally, the government’s inability to control its own parliamentarians reinforced that while establishment support is important for a government’s longevity, the ruling party cannot abandon day-to-day political management to the establishment.

The U.S.-Pakistan bilateral relationship can be expected to remain unaffected in the short term because of political instability in the country. While the civilian government will remain pre-occupied with domestic political infighting, the military continues to engage closely with the United States on the Afghan peace process and will be focused on upcoming U.S. troop withdrawal decisions.

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