Is House Of The Federation Becoming A House of Independents?

Recent elections for the Senate of Pakistan have raised some serious questions for our Parliament and for democracy itself

Is House Of The Federation Becoming A House of Independents?

In public discourse, the notions of "supremacy of Parliament" and that "Parliament is supreme" are widely used by the political leadership, parliamentarians, and political parties. The important thing to ponder here is how true these notions practically are, and how Parliament is relevant. Merely repeating these notions every day is nothing more than lip service to the cause they espouse. Recent elections for the Senate of Pakistan have raised some serious questions for the self-proclaimed custodian of Parliament and democracy. 

First and foremost, one must have a basic understanding of the institution of the Senate. The historical origin and meaning of the term "Senate" can be traced back to the derived Greek word Senatus, which can simply be understood as the council of elders. In the Roman Empire, the Senate was an institution of old, wise and experienced people who had an advisory role regarding the government and state affairs. With the passage of time, the institution of the Senate gradually became more relevant: it flourished pertinently in multi-ethnic and ethno-linguistically diverse societies, which welcomed the idea the decentralised governments, or the federal form of government. However, implementing a decentralised form of government is different from the federation. For example, in the UK, the process of evolution for the Senate is different, and the House of Lords has emerged as the revising chamber but without equality of representatives across jurisdictions. In contrast, in the Indian Rajya Sabha or the council of states, there is an equality in the representation of states in terms of the number of representatives each state elects to this legislative chamber.

The Senate of Pakistan is an outcome of the 1973 Constitution of Pakistan. The Senate stands for equal representation of federating units regardless of area, population or development conditions. It is the symbol of the federation, which is why it is known as the House of the Federation or, conversely, the territorial chamber. According to the Constitution of Pakistan, the senators are indirectly elected by the provincial legislature, employing the electoral college principle instead of senators being directly elected by the people. The electoral college of the Senate elections is the national assembly and respective provincial assemblies. Each provincial assembly votes for the contested seats of their province. Having said that, there are still a few aristocratic traditions reflected in the history of the Senate. This legislative house has 104 seats equally divided among the provinces because it was intended to be a house of the federation. These seats are divided into categories of general, technocrat/ulema, women, and minorities seats. 

The key significance of the Senate is that it manifests the decisive role of federating units in constitutional amendments as well as in legislative business. The Senate's other important purpose is to bring intelligent brains to Parliament, especially those who cannot contest direct elections and cannot be part of electoral and constituency politics. The framers of the Constitution intended that the Senate would be an insulated body where they could debate the question of the day, and report on NFC, NEC, treaties and foreign relations, but without the constant interference of public opinion, so as to enable senators to do what is best for the country even if it may not be immediately popular.

Ironically, the political parties who claim to be champions of democracy have nothing to say about these developments

The existing election system of the Senate reflects the strict, and at times rather dictatorial, role of political parties as well as the deteriorating political morality of the nation. For example,  to whom party will award the ticket? Who will members of the provincial assembly vote for? What is the eligibility criteria to get a senate ticket from respective political parties? A person from a different province got a ticket to the Senate from another province. The metropolitan elite is dominating the upper house. This scenario depicts a situation where the political parties have been overpowered. 

In the 2024 senate elections, the new alarming trend is the victory of independent candidates and the entry of non-political personalities. For example, Moshin Naqvi, the incumbent interior minister, was supported by PML-N and its allies, while ex-caretaker PM Anwar ul Haq Kakar and Faisal Vawda were supported by PPP and MQM, and both were elected unopposed. Furthermore, these elections raised serious concerns about the credibility of the caretaker government, and it would also have far-reaching implications for the functioning of an elected coalition government.

Ironically, the political parties who claim to be champions of democracy have nothing to say about these developments. Regretfully, a towering and dignified person like Raza Rabbani has no space in the Senate. It is now an open secret, the obvious writing on the wall, as to who is calling the shots. The political culture of Pakistan has become a seesaw between intoxication and compulsion of power. 

In my humble opinion, to revive the true essence of the Senate of Pakistan, there must procedural change in the Senate elections. Allocating seats to provinces is not enough; it should be further allocated on a division basis for justified representation of deprived, peripheral, and suburban areas. And, most importantly, the senators must be directly elected by the people. Doing so can boost public participation and a sense of ownership of the masses vis-à-vis the legislative institutions.