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Vote-Buying Allegations Cloud Pakistan Senate Elections

File photo of a Senate session in Pakistan.
File photo of a Senate session in Pakistan.

A six-year term in the upper house of Pakistani Parliament comes with a price tag.

Securing a seat in the Senate is expected to cost some rich candidates up to $9 million.

Drug dealers, real estate tycoons and business magnates are outbidding each other to buy enough votes in the various legislatures to secure a seat in the March 5 vote.

Half of the 104 senators are scheduled to retire early next month. The country's four provincial legislatures and the lower house are now scheduled to elect 52 senators.

The secret ballot, however, has prompted some wealthy Pakistanis to essentially try to purchase Senate seats by buying votes in these legislatures.

Some of the most intriguing Senate contests are expected in northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province, where 124 MPs from eight political parties will choose 11 senators.

Lawmakers expect money to be a decisive factor in winning a Senate seat from the region as some candidates are already offering as much as $200,000 for one vote. These rates are expected to shoot up to $300,000 in the run-up to vote. A winner will require at least 17 votes.

The March 5 elections are expected to be highly unpredictable because 56 lawmakers of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI) are bitterly divided into factions. Media reports suggest the presence of two wealthy brothers, Waqar Ahmed Khan and Ammar Ahmed Khan, has alarmed PTI members. They are reputed for buying their way into the legislature.

One of Pakistan's leading Islamist politicians, Sirajul Haq ─ whose Jamaat-e Islami party is part of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa's coalition government with PTI ─ has warned against the "ugly business of buying and selling votes" in the elections.

"The people should grab MPAs [members of the Provincial Assembly] by the collar if they sell their votes in the Senate elections as it is a menace disastrous for the democratic dispensation," he told journalists on February 19 after filing papers to run in the contest.

Pakistan's English-language daily "Dawn" reported that a property tycoon is "investing" millions in the election. One unnamed lawmaker told the paper that some MPs are actively bidding for the rich candidate. "The [final] price of votes for the Senate elections has not been fixed as yet," the lawmaker said.

The picture in the restive southwestern Balochistan province is not any different. Its 65 members come from nine political parties. According to daily "Pakistan Today," some Balochistan lawmakers are already demanding up to $500,000 for a vote.

Lawmakers from the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) are reportedly at loggerheads over the Senate elections. Only 10 PML-N MPs out of 22 showed up to meet party leader and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on February 18 as he tried to win their support for his candidates.

Lawmakers from Pakistan's Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) are reputed to reap the biggest financial rewards from the Senate elections. FATA's 10 lawmakers in the National Assembly, the lower house, are slotted to elect four senators.

According to Hamid Mir, one of Pakistan's leading television presenters, lawmakers from the tribal areas are being offered more than $3 million for one vote. FATA lawmakers say the going rate for their votes was close to $3 million during the 2012 election and is expected to rise substantially this time.

Ironically, FATA representatives cannot legislate for their homeland because the Pakistani Constitution stipulates that the country's president and the governor of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa govern the region, and most Pakistani laws, including vital constitutional provisions, are still not applied in the impoverished restive region reeling from a decade of Taliban insurgency and Pakistani military operations.

Political observers say the remaining two provinces are relatively immune from vote-buying because two of Pakistan's leading political parties have clear majorities in the provincial assemblies.

In the eastern province of Punjab, Sharif''s PML-N has an overwhelming majority with 312 MPs out of the 371 members. It is expected to win all 11 senate seats because the main opposition party, PTI, is staying out of the contest in Punjab.

Similarly in the southern Sindh Province, the Pakistani Peoples Party and the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) have 92 and 51 members in the 168 member assembly, respectively.

Political pundits say a Senate seat is so coveted because it gives shadowy figures the chance to launder their ill-gotten wealth. In addition, it helps raise their social and political stature and provides unhindered access to top government figures and power corridors.

Pakistan's 1973 constitution established the Senate to grant equal representation to the country's provinces because the popularly elected lower house of parliament is dominated by Punjab, home to more than half of Pakistan's estimated 180 million people.

In addition to legislation, the Senate is expected to promote "equality, peace and harmony."

Pakistani Senate members earn less than $20,000 in salaries and entitlements annually.