Pak ruling coalition strengthens position in Senate

Islamabad: Pakistan`s ruling coalition has consolidated its position in the upper house of Parliament as it won a majority of 54 Senate seats that went to polls, easing the pressure on President Asif Ali Zardari after a slew of debilitating standoffs with the judiciary and military.

The win for the ruling PPP and its allies in yesterday`s polls came in the wake of a strong performance by the party in recent bypolls to 10 seats in the national and provincial assemblies, giving it a further boost.

Friday`s polls were held to replace about half of the members of the 104-seat Senate whose terms have come to an end. After bagging 19 seats, the PPP has become the single largest party in the Senate with 41 members, according to unofficial results.

The Awami National Party, a key partner in the ruling coalition, took its strength to 12 with the victory of its seven candidates. The Muttahida Qaumi Movement, another ally of the PPP, won four seats to improve its position to seven. PML-Q too bagged four seats.

Eight candidates of the main opposition PML-N won the elections, taking its strength in the Senate to 14. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam won only four seats. The combined strength of the opposition in the Senate now stands at 22.

Presidential spokesman Farhatullah Babar and senior PPP leaders Raza Rabbani and Aitzaz Ahsan were among the notable winners. Babar was elected from a seat reserved for technocrats in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

For the first time, four members of minority communities from the four provinces were elected to seats reserved for them in the Senate. These members are Kamran Michael of the PML-N in Punjab, Harri Ram Kishori Lal in Sindh, Amar Jeet of the ANP in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Heman Dass of the JUI in Balochistan.

However, the PPP suffered an upset in Punjab as its candidate Aslam Gill was defeated largely due to ignorance of the complex voting rules among PPP legislators.

The lawmakers did not cast votes for their second or third preference, thus knocking Gill out of the contest. The Senate, whose members serve for six years, plays a key role in passing legislations.

After the Supreme Court began pressuring the PPP to reopen graft cases against Zardari and relations between the government and the powerful military were strained by the memo scandal, there was speculation that the PPP might be forced to put off the Senate polls and call an early general election.

PPP leaders, including Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani, claimed that conspiracies were being hatched against the government to prevent the holding of the Senate polls on schedule as the opposition parties were apprehensive about the ruling coalition securing a majority in the upper house of Parliament.

Observers believe the PPP`s performance in the recent bypolls and the Senate elections will give much-needed breathing space to the party and beleaguered President Zardari, who hailed the outcome of yesterday`s polls as "yet another triumph of democracy."

In a message to the newly elected Senators, Zardari said the successful completion of the elections has "proved that democracy was functional and the policy of reconciliation was showing results."

"The predictions of doom and gloom by the detractors of the (PPP) and the democratic forces notwithstanding, the government and the party have achieved yet another political milestone by conducting two Senate elections in a row during its tenure in office," he said.

However, the apex court has kept up its pressure on the Prime Minister to reopen corruption cases against Zardari. Gilani is currently facing contempt charges for failing to act on the court`s orders. The army too is believed to be opposed to Zardari and its call for a probe by the Supreme Court into the memo issue is seen as an attempt to pressure the President to quit.