The logic of mid-terms - Cyril Almeida - Friday 25th March 2011

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THE doom-and-gloom set had predicted much hungama in parliament this week. Zardari was going to be humiliated by the opposition, signalling the beginning of the end for his unpopular government, etc, etc.
But what was served up in the end was, according to a PML-Q leader, a ‘shareefana walkout’. Why so shareef?
Outside parliament, after the president’s speech, a lesson in power politics followed. “Opposition parties are reacting to public pressures, but does that mean that all are to unite to throw out the government? Each party will look after its own interests,” the PML-Q leader claimed.
What were the PML-Q’s interests? “An election this year doesn’t suit us. ‘N’ may benefit. So if ‘N’ has something to gain, why should we help it?”
But why had the N-League been so quiet?
A PPP insider who should know laughed: “If Nawaz hadn’t been indisposed, Nisar would have been restrained even further.
The PML-N are as much incumbents as we are, so they will get it in the neck from the electorate, too.”
So why all the hype in the run-up to address, then?
A forlorn TV anchor may inadvertently have provided the answer, confiding: “My mother thinks I’m an embarrassment. She says, ‘We spent so much to educate you and now all you do is make politicians fight on TV’.”
The doom-and-gloom set will be back, though.
Already they are plotting their next strike: budget time. Broke and desperate for votes, the PPP will be tested again come budget season in a couple of months.
“Budget-voting time is always a tough time for the government, because our neck is on the line,” the PPP insider conceded. A rival shark had this to offer: “The MQM will be critical at budget time. All eyes will be on them.”
But it’s the MQM we’re talking about here.
On Tuesday, a beaming Rehman Malik escorted Farooq Sattar on to the floor of the National Assembly. Afterwards, a reporter asked Sattar why the MQM had not boycotted the session. “We boycotted the prime minister’s lunch,” replied Sattar, without a trace of irony.
The PPP knows how to play the MQM’s game.
So the doom-and-gloom set is looking beyond the budget session, towards next March, the month of the next Senate elections.
Even a senior PPP minister who dismissed the doom-and-gloom brigade — “every prediction thus far has come untrue” — had no hesitation in pointing to next March as a critical period for the government.
Really, minister, do Pakistani politicians really think that far ahead, I asked.
Laughter. “If politicians didn’t think about elections, what else would they do?”
So let’s follow the logic of politicians and see why the Senate configuration could threaten the survival of the government
before next March.
The key to this theory is the PML-N and how the Senate is elected.
Next March, 54 senators will be elected (the 18th Amendment bumped up the strength of the Senate to 104; each province will get a minority member from next year). The break-up: 12 senators to be elected by each provincial assembly; four Fata senators to be elected by the 12 Fata MPs; and two senators from Islamabad to be nominated by the president.
Now here’s the problem: having being shut out during the Musharraf era and grabbing a big presence in just the Punjab Assembly in the ’08 provincial elections, the PML-N is stuck with a mere seven senators, six of them elected in 2009. The PPP has 27.
Back of the envelope calculations suggest that with the present assemblies in the provinces, come next March, the PML-N would be able to up its tally to 22 or 23 Senate seats. The PPP would end up with closer to 42-43. The PML-Q, with 27 senators at present, would be decimated.
The way the numbers break down is presumed to be especially problematic for the PML-N. “You think the N-League can get along with partners, run a coalition like we have?” the sceptical PPP minister asked.
So what’s driving the speculation about a push to topple the government and early elections before next March is essentially a dilemma faced by the PML-N. If the present set-up in the provinces and the centre is allowed to elect 54 senators next March, the PML-N will be stuck with an upper house in which its presence is less than a quarter until 2015.
While the Senate is inferior to the National Assembly — it doesn’t participate in the election of the prime minister and has a limited role in the passage of money bills — you need 51 votes — 53 once membership rises to 104 next year — to get ordinary legislation passed.
The PML-N is famed for its go-it-alone approach, unable or unwilling to compromise with partners, political or otherwise. If it comes to power after the Senate elections of next March, with just 25-odd senators, will the party be able to reinvent itself and work with the other parties and elements?
Most political observers don’t think so — and some obsessed with getting rid of the PPP may be hoping so — which is why there is so much chatter about the PML-N going for national elections before the Senate elections.
The logic of early elections for the PML-N is that while the party has suffered from the incumbency factor in Punjab, they are still better placed than the PPP. So early elections could allow the PML-N to pad its advantage in the Punjab Assembly and through a few seats and other alliances, grab a foothold in the other provinces.
If that were to happen, then next March the PML-N would win more seats in the Senate elections — and see its main rivals, the PPP and the PML-Q, suffer.
At least that is the theory.
There is some logic to the doom-and-gloom set’s latest theory, though. The PPP will have to respond. The party has several options, but will it pick the right strategy?
Oh, the fun that is Pakistani politics.
The writer is a member of staff.

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