Murtaza Solangi explains the subterfuge behind the Senate election

As 2017 was drawing to a close, Balochistan Chief Minister Sanaullah Zehri was enjoying his holidays in London. At around Christmas, Nawaz Sharif’s Baloch and Pashtun coalition partners made stressed phone calls to him and Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi. A coup d’etat is in the offing against your CM, they said. Wake up!

Just three days before the 2018 sun rose, PM Abbasi was told by his civilian agency that Sanaullah Zehri’s goose was cooked. A revolt within the party had materialized. Frantic efforts to reach the beefy Zehri were made from Islamabad but he was already on his way to Dubai. Upon arrival there, he got to know what had happened in Quetta and he rushed home.

Once in Quetta, he asked his chief secretary to contact a big gun in Quetta to talk him out. You have two options. Resign gracefully or fight it out and go disgracefully. Take your pick, he was told. Panicked Zehri reached out to Nawaz and PM Abbasi for help. A federal minister from Balochistan went to see the top guns in Rawalpindi, the garrison town, to do some fire-fighting. We have nothing to do with this, he was told. The same message was even conveyed to Zehri who was emboldened and decided to fight it out. The next morning some of his near and dear ones were picked up and stories of Zehri’s corruption started popping up on the usual suspect TV channels. When Zehri was convinced that he had been successfully checkmated, he threw in the towel.
Frantic efforts to reach beefy Zehri were made from Islamabad but he was already on his way to Dubai. Upon arrival, he got to know what had happened in Quetta and he rushed home

Turncoats joining the ranks of the PML-N in Balochistan had abandoned ship. The party was over in Balochistan. This is something Mehmood Achakzai and Asif Zardari had talked about. Both the party and the government of the Noon had entered a gloomy afternoon.

TV pundits went into a frenzy, predicting the dissolution of the Balochistan Assembly by the new chief minister of Balochistan to be followed by that of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Sindh, to shatter the electoral college for the Senate elections due on March 3. But that was not the game. The plan was first to rout the PML-N government and reduce its upcoming majority in the Senate to stall any legislation in future that could possibly reincarnate a disqualified and humiliated Nawaz Sharif.

Many attempts were made in the recent past to bring a motley of forces, including religious zealots, against Nawaz Sharif to weaken and bruise him, rather than politically kill him. The last attempt to politically dislodge him was steered by Tahirul Qadri, who bragged about bringing Zardari and Imran Khan to his left and right at a Lahore protest rally, where Sheikh Rasheed announced his resignation from the National Assembly and prodded Imran Khan to follow suit. The hatred created by the leadership of the PPP and PTI did not make it possible. Tahirul Qadri had to pack his bags again for the cooler climes of Canada, but the game didn’t end there.

Soon after the nomination process was completed for the Senate elections, the Supreme Court issued a detailed verdict on the Election Act 2017 and struck down its Article 203 under which a disqualified Nawaz Sharif had become king maker again, despite his disqualification. Under the verdict, all decisions made by Nawaz Sharif were not only declared illegal but no protection was provided to his decisions either. All of a sudden, all PML-N ticket holders in the Senate lost their party affiliation and the Election Commission stripped them and declared them Independent candidates.

The next round was to gain as many Senators as possible to prevent the PML-N from securing a simple majority in the upper house and finally deprive it of the posts of chairman and deputy chairman.

A split in the MQM ranks deprived it of two Senators and forced it to settle on just one Farogh Nasim. Raza Rabbani, one of the top architects of the 18th Amendment, was given a Senate ticket after many old guards and Chairman Bilawal threw tantrums before former President Asif Zardari. Huffing and puffing Farhatullah Babar’s wings were already clipped from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa where Asif Zardari was able to pull two Senators with barely five MPAs. The biggest surprise in Punjab was Chaudhry Sarwar not only getting elected but also getting the highest votes. Even the PPP who got nothing in Punjab, got three times more votes than their actual number of MPAs.

The heroes of the coup d’etat in Balochistan got six Independent Senators elected. They also had the backing of two PML-N Senators who were close relatives of Sanaullah Zehri. The PML-N had 33 Senators but Ishaq Dar, despite his election, couldn’t come, so they were already one vote short. FATA Senators always swing to the side of Miltablishment, and most of them did. Everybody in the know, knew of the late night huddles in Islamabad under the supervision of the engineers of the anti-Nawaz change.

A remarkable feat was accomplished by Imran Khan’s backers when he announced that he would hand over his 13 Senators to the newly liberated Independent Senators of Balochistan. Asif Zardari didn’t lose the opportunity and gunned straight for this non-entity group. It was politically immature, so it was quickly awed and gave its power of attorney to Asif Zardari to make the final decision. As soon as the news came out, this riled the PTI rank and file.

For Imran Khan, who has been calling both Zardari and Nawaz names, it was a tough sell to his party, that almost rebelled. The next day, Imran Khan came swinging again against Zardari and made it clear to the Balochistan group that was being branded as the Askari group on social media. He said that he would support them only if the chairman was from their group and the deputy chairman would go to FATA Senators. That threw a spanner in the works. Finally Asif Zardari surrendered before Imran on the post of chairman and Imran Khan conceded to accept a deputy chairman of the PPP.

This disheartened the PPP old guard and the young Chairman Bilawal. They tried their best on the night of March 11 to persuade Asif Zardari to change his mind and accept a ruling alliance offer to announce Raza Rabbani for the top slot. Zardari knew better to stick to the Miltablishment that has been speaking against the 18th Amendment and its architect Rabbani. Zardari not only stuck to his guns but forced Bilawal to make the unpopular announcement of bowing before the Askari group and demoting Saleem Mandviwalla as the deputy chairman option.

Nawaz Sharif’s plan B in case Raza Rabbani was not accepted was Hasil Bizenjo. But Akhtar Mengal upped the ante and said his Senator would not support Hasil Bizenjo. PkMAP and the JUI-F were not too excited about Hasil Bizenjo. As Nawaz Sharif found himself in an awkward position, Bizenjo bailed him out by dropping out of the race, leaving him with no choice but to choose Raja Zafarul Haq over the others. Now the battle for the deputy chairman’s nominee began. JUI-F and PkMAP both wanted the slot. Nawaz couldn’t anger any one of them. Cricket came to the rescue and the toss was decided in favour of PkMAP, angering the JUI-F.

On the afternoon of March 12, when the voting began, all JUI-F Senators disappeared from the Senate hall, causing panic in the government ranks. After half an hour later, ministers and party big guns were able to bring them back.

As the counting began and the ballots were being dropped in the baskets clearly marked for Sadiq Sanjrani and Raja Zafarul Haq, journalists kept counting. As the magic number 53 for Sadiq Sanjrani was counted, the face of his polling agent, Farooq Naek, broke out into a smile that was so wide it was visible even from the press gallery. Raja was still in the 40s range at that point. The die was cast. The empire and the umpire had ensured that the victory of the coerced coalition and the Noon saw its worst afternoon. The rest, as they say, is history.

The writer is a broadcast journalist based in Islamabad. He tweets as @murtazasolangi

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad