This Thursday was a crucial day in the ongoing political turmoil in Pakistan. A united opposition no-confidence motion against the chairman of the Senate, Sadiq Sanjrani, was tabled and votes were cast. The opposition, which enjoys the majority in the Senate as it has 67 members out of 104, surprisingly was unable to send Sanjrani packing. The no-confidence motion got 50 votes in favor while 43 votes were cast against the move.

For the motion to succeed, the opposition needed 53 votes, and until the vote count began it had 64 votes ensured. However, the procedure of secret balloting changed the entire course of the game and the united opposition faced an embarrassing defeat after it fell short by three votes.

Sadiq Sanjrani is recognized as the “man” of the military establishment. Reportedly the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) played a double game and seven of its senators rejected the instructions of the party leadership, which is alleged to have met with the property tycoon and power broker Malik Riaz after which its members defected. While five Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) senators defected as well and Raja Zafar ul Haq, a senior leader of the party who is known to have close ties with establishment, played a vital role in PML-N senators’ defection. However, the PPP, as usual, remains the main culprit and it continues to backstab the opposition in the hope of getting relief from the establishment.

It was never expected that the opposition would easily oust Sanjrani, but it was a surprise that 14 members of the opposition would vote against the no-confidence motion, and that the PML-N and PPP were not able to anticipate the establishment move to buy their senators.

This failure is an indication that neither the PML-N nor the PPP are able to read the situation and, willingly or unwillingly, cannot succeed when it matters the most. In any case the establishment and the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government have again used the horse-trading trick by buying members of the opposition or by pressuring a few of them with the threat to open judicial inquiries against them.

The question arises over what Shahbaz Sharif, the president of PML-N, was thinking and why he was not able to question the PPP when the news was leaked that Malik Riaz had met with its leadership to save Sanjrani. Bringing Sanjrani down and electing Mir Hasil Bizenjo as the new chairman of the Senate would have meant that the establishment can be defeated, and it would also have resulted in defections from PTI in national and provincial assemblies, as many would have thought that establishment hegemony was finished. It would have tilted the balance of power in the favor of civilian supremacy, but the main opposition parties were not able to hold it together during the voting.

Feeling the heat, both Shahbaz and PPP chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari have said they will not spare those party members who cheated and voted for Sanjrani. However, it is too late now, as naming or shaming those senators who were involved in horse-trading will never bring back the golden opportunity of defeating the establishment on the political chessboard. Perhaps it is time that both Shahbaz and Bilawal accept their failures, and Shahbaz especially should resign from the presidency of PML-N, as it is the second time that under Shahbaz PML-N was not able to turn the tables.

First Shahbaz failed miserably when Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz were returning to Pakistan to give themselves up to arrest in July last year. By his refusal to meet them at the airport, not only were Sharif and his daughter humiliated but it also sent a message to the political candidates that establishment was in full charge. Had Shahbaz gone to the airport on that occasion politics would have changed in the country.

And once again, Shahbaz now has failed miserably in making a no-confidence motion succeed against Sanjrani. Shahbaz is considered a pro-status-quo politician who wants to mend fences with the establishment and accept its political hegemony. So PML-N needs to revisit its strategy as the dull and old-fashioned Shahbaz cannot lead the charge against the mighty establishment.

On the other hand, the PPP should ask itself what it has achieved by first helping the establishment last year in toppling the provincial assembly of Balochistan to deny PML-N a majority in the Senate and now again saving Sanjrani. Zardari still is not able to read the writing on the wall, nor he is a smart player on the political chessboard. The opposition candidate to replace Sanjrani, Hasi Bizenjo, has accused the country’s premier spy agency of pressuring and buying the 14 dissenting members of the opposition. Bizenjo has the guts to say so openly, while the two mainstream parties, the PPP and PML-N, both are reluctant to name the people who have been involved in the dirty game of political engineering since 2018. Only Maryam Nawaz shows resilience, as she often criticizes the establishment for its interference in the political process, but she alone is not enough to beat the establishment.

Perhaps Maryam needs to bring more new faces into the provincial assemblies if she wants her anti-establishment politics to prevail. The same is the case with the PPP, which badly needs to get out of its past mistake of aligning with the establishment in the hope of getting a piece of the power cake.

This victory for Sanjrani means that now the deep state will push more to crush the mainstream political parties and to try to create a one-party system, which will suit its undeclared coup. On Thursday Sanjrani and the establishment won, but Pakistan lost, because democracy was again weakened by the practice of horse-trading and the deep state threatening opposition members. This failure also indicates that if voting in the Senate, in the daylight and in front of cameras, can be manipulated, then imagine what kind of rigging and manipulation took place in last year’s general elections.

It seems that the legacy of General Ayub Khan, who imposed the first martial law and laid the foundation of corruption and manipulation in Pakistani politics, is still very strong and it will take years of effort and sacrifice for the democratic forces to prevail. The military establishment has saved its pawn Sanjrani, but it has added one more black chapter to the political history of Pakistan, and perhaps this will not only weaken democracy but also the state of Pakistan itself, as no state in the modern world can exist when it is run by a few individuals or an institution that does not have the mandate or capacity to govern. After all, a state run on the basis of fear and by hijacking the ballot of the masses can never have a strong foundation as it lacks the collective wisdom of the masses and their genuine elected leaders.