Elections were held Friday for the upper chamber of Pakistan's parliament, the Senate, which is chosen by members of the parliament's lower house and the country's provincial assemblies. About half of the Senate's seats are being contested, to replace members whose terms end on March 12. The ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), which already holds a majority of seats in the lower house, is expected to bolster its position in the Senate.
While the Senate elections are more a routine procedure than a popular referendum, the fact that the elections were held at all is a democratic achievement, given Pakistan's political volatility.
Ahmed Mehboob, the director of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, says there is nothing routine about an election in a country that has long been dominated by the military.
“I think it is a very important milestone in the sense that a civilian democratic government is holding these elections," said Mehboob. "Generally, these elections have been held in the past when the military or [a] quasi-military government was in place.”
The Senate elections come just weeks after a dramatic political showdown between the government and the military. A scandal centering on an unsigned memo sent to Washington last year asking for U.S. help to prevent a possible military coup enraged the army, which was still angry over the unilateral American raid that killed Osama bin Laden in the Pakistani garrison town of Abbottabad. Pakistan's military has staged three successful coups since independence in 1947 and has had a problematic relationship with the civilian government headed by Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani and President Asif Ali Zardari.
In the latest showdown, the military has not taken any direct action against the civilian government. However, in a case that is pending, Pakistan's Supreme Court charged the prime minister with contempt for defying its orders to reopen a corruption case against the president.
Meanwhile, the political opposition tried and failed to gain enough votes to dissolve parliament and hold new general elections prior to the Senate elections.
Mehboob says the Senate elections will benefit the parties already in power.
“This particular election is important in the sense that [the] current ruling coalition will consolidate its position in the Senate," he said. "It is already the Pakistan People's Party, the largest party, but it will further consolidate, it will have the major gains.”
He says that while the Senate elections may strengthen the ruling PPP's power base, the results should not be seen as indicator of popular support for the government.