In a democratic polity, the edifice of political system is hinged upon the strength of its institutions. These institutions provide perpetuity and continuity to its growth. In a federation, Senate is a fortress that connects all the federating units. It is considered as an upper house that guarantees equal opportunities of participation in the affairs of governance to all its constituent units. Thus, all the entities of the federation, with their own perspectives, sit across and participate in the legislative work under the same roof. Its diverse and all-encompassing character enables it to ward off the secessionist tendencies and make the federation a unified unit that caters and respects the will and wishes of all the ethnic and linguistic groups of each geographical unit.
In order to give perpetuity to Senate, elections are held as per the procedure laid down in Article 59 of the Constitution, which provides constitutional necessity of the elections of 104 members for a period of six years. Senate symbolises the federation, therefore the tenure of its member is not expired all at once. Instead of it, the term of half of the members expires after three years, and they are replaced by new members. In such a way, the Upper House continues to function without any break. Recent senate elections have been widely debated and created a lot of stir while exposing plethora of maladies.
Constitution clearly spells out the procedure for Senate elections where the members of provincial assembly exercise their right of suffrage through proportional representation by single transferrable vote. Prima facie, this mode of electioneering is indirect; the indirect method of electioneering for the members of Senate provides enormous opportunities to the provincial legislators to strike deals and enter into political bargains even of pecuniary nature to cast their vote in the favour of candidates for Senate election. As money makes the mare go, those who are carried away by such tantalizing offers even desert their respective political parties and become oblivious of party manifestoes. Unfortunately, the situation reaches to the extent that it is viewed as if everyone is up for grab. Such malfunctions, which are infamously labelled as horse-trading, are extremely detrimental to the civilized democratic norms. When deals are struck behind closed doors, it is a disheartening sign for the democratic process. It results in a lack of respect for the newly elected members of Senate, absence of discipline within the rank and file of political parties and brings onto surface underlying greed and malpractices within the political system. During the recent elections, most of the major political stakeholders have been victim of such nefarious practices. Insofar as mainstream political parties have been publicly crying over foul play and illicit practices that have crept in during the process of elections. When everybody is lamenting and publicly criticizing the malpractices, time is ripe for remedial measures.
Our Senate is characterized by partisanship; elections of Chairman and Deputy Chairman of Senate are contested on strong party lines. In a hung parliament where clear-cut majority is absent, political parties enter into alliances with other parties to get their nominees elected. In the United States where Senate is incontestably the most powerful chamber, the Vice President is ex-officio Chairman of Senate and conducts the business of House impartially. The Committees of Senate are not constituted on party considerations, whereas veteran Senators are entrusted the task of accountability. In our present situation, Senate’s Chairman is viewed as a representative of the respective party and therefore, he invariably and unmistakably toes the party line, as he owes the position by dint of his political allegiance. Although former Chairman Raza Rabbani has been a noble exception in this regard; he added prestige and dignity to the office with his remarkably impartial role. However, an institution’s trajectory cannot be viewed with the extraordinary conduct of an individual. In order to make the House more effective, we need to discourage partisan tendencies and allow seasoned politicians across political spectrums to come into foray and play their part for the growth of the institution.
The present structure of the Senate is representative, albeit in an indirect way. This undermines the vitality and significance of the House. An indirectly elected chamber finds it difficult to resist the will of the lower House. The other directly elected houses, like National Assembly of Pakistan and the House of Commons of England, look down upon the other house for not carrying the popular mandate. Even in England, the House of Lords is struggling for its very existence. Critics argue that it is just a burden on the national exchequer. They vehemently criticise the hereditary peers who are members of the House of Lords. Even in Pakistan, the ticket of Senate is considered as a long-term commitment to the party. Only a party loyalist can qualify and is rewarded in such a way. In order to add dignity to the House, we need to make it representative in an indirect way where individuals with unimpeachable integrity are given a chance to participate and legislate on the issue of national significance.
Our Senate is marred with absenteeism; Chairman Senate has been seen frustrated many a times over the apathy of legislators when the required quorum has not been filled. This dilemma arises when we consider legislative work less important and least acknowledged as against the political gimmicks of the constituencies. When the yardstick of performance is based on the completion of infrastructure projects rather than vital legislative work. In this regard, the political parties need to award tickets to those who have penchant for a less celebrated and often obscure legislative work, which is their basic function in contrast to the limelight of politics.
These maladies manifest a sorry state of affairs. In order to thwart malpractices, we need to bring some basic structural changes in order to make parliament a supreme entity. In this regard, we need to adopt three-pronged approach: first and foremost, the mode of elections calls for changes immediately. The method of elections should be direct where Senators would be directly elected by the people without any intermediaries. If we make the House more assertive, vibrant and legitimate. Second, the role of Senate should be expanded on the lines of Senate of United States. Senate committees should have executive and judicial function along with their core legislative responsibility. The executive appointments should get ratifications from Senate committees; it will make the executive more careful in its choice of appointments and bring the best and the brightest to fill the slot. These checks and balances will pave the way for transparency and accountability. Third, the President’s power to issue ordinances as laid down in Article 89 of the Constitution should be taken away. Such monarchical tendencies need to be done away with in order to establish the supremacy of the Parliament and respect for rule of law and constitutionalism.
In the end, every Constitution is a product of circumstances and exhibits the pattern of that particular time. However, it is neither static nor it can afford to be. The guiding principles are sacrosanct, but the procedures are subject to change. This evolutionary process of approaching perfection enables the legislators to fix the problem as the need arises. It is the right time in our political history to correct the mode of election of Senate by making it direct.
The writer is an officer of Police Service of Pakistan.
The present structure of the Senate is representative, albeit in an indirect way. This undermines the vitality and significance of the House. An indirectly elected chamber finds it difficult to resist the will of the lower House.