Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Business Recorder editorial Jan 16, 2018

FATA merger games

The passing of the Supreme Court and High Court (Extension of Jurisdiction to FATA) Bill 2018 by the National Assembly the other day promised that the new day anticipated to be dawning for the people of the tribal areas had finally arrived, and not a moment too soon. Alas that initial euphoria may prove premature. Concerns are being voiced by different quarters that the government may seek to delay or dilute the Bill’s provisions as well as its spirit. The Bill allows the President (on the government’s advice of course) to delay signing it even if the Senate also passes it. What on earth is intended to be accomplished by putting such a roadblock in the path of what should have been a historic first step towards the long neglected people of the tribal areas finally enjoying all the rights of citizenship they have been deprived of for long, and even after independence for 70 years? The Bill also allows the government to apply its provisions selectively and in stages to the tribal Agencies that constitute FATA. Last but not least, the failure to repeal the notorious colonial-era FCR holds the risk of the new system of justice (if and when it is applied) colliding with the antediluvian system of collective tribal punishment and ‘managing’ security on the frontier that the British bequeathed as a legacy of their own imperial designs to Pakistan. It is a sad commentary on our history that the FCR system remained in force all these years after independence and continued to subject the tribal people to the farce of ‘justice’ being dispensed by Political Agents appointed by the government for each Agency, and against whose arbitrary verdicts no forum for appeal was available. And yet when it appeared that repeal of the FCR was an idea whose time has come, the government has behaved like a shrinking violet in refraining from consigning it to the dustbin of history where it belongs. The half-measure envisaged in the Bill, which will result in FATA’s judicial system being suspended between being neither fish nor fowl, is being viewed by critics as the government’s intent to thwart meaningful reform to bring FATA into the national mainstream.

Why is the government bent upon raising hopes that FATA will emerge into the modern light of day at last only to dash them with the next breath? It appears that the government is tactically avoiding a break on the issue with its two allies, the JUI-F of Maulana Fazlur Rehman and the PkMAP of Mehmood Khan Achakzai. Both have publicly and vociferously opposed the merger of FATA with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, less, it is suspected, because of any cogent reasons and more as a vested interest in retaining their political clout in the tribal areas. If so, this appears the proverbial case of the tail wagging the dog. It is also being speculated that Nawaz Sharif’s current crop of problems are impinging on the project to mainstream FATA as soon as possible. Arguably, the phase-wise implementation of the Bill in different Agencies of FATA may be intended to avoid the complexities of replacing a long established but unacceptable order with the new one. But logically the clearing of FATA after the military operations there should if anything have helped accelerate the process rather than it being deliberately dragged on. If it is political expediency revolving around keeping the two recalcitrant allies on board and making concessions to Nawaz Sharif’s current considerations, this is both unfair and unjust in terms of the tribal people’s long awaited journey out of the colonial-imposed darkness they have suffered in for too long and into the sunshine of full citizenship with all its constitutionally mandated rights palette.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 13, 2018

The beginning of the end?

The much anticipated election of a new Chief Minister (CM) for Balochistan after former CM Nawab Sanaullah Zehri resigned on January 9 on the eve of voting on the no-confidence motion against him transpired on January 13. The result was an almost foregone conclusion, but CM-elect Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo managed to get a healthy majority with 41 votes from the house of 65 members. His own party, the PML-Q, only has five members but he received support across the board from all the parties except the Pashtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) and the National Party (NP). The PkMAP put up its own candidate, Agha Liaquat Ali, less because they had any hopes of winning and more because they argued the election should be seen as democratic. Their candidate managed 13 of the 14 votes of their members, Khalid Langove deciding to vote for Bizenjo in retaliation, as he put it after the vote in the Assembly, for Zehri’s government having charged him with corruption. It appears one of the members of the NP may also have voted for Bizenjo despite the party’s stance that it would abstain from participating in protest at the failure of the former coalition allies’ inability to agree on a consensus candidate. Those voting against the party whip include 19 of the 21 members of the PML-N, the two exceptions being Speaker Raheela Durrani, whose casting vote was not required, and Zehri himself. This wholesale abandonment of Zehri by his own party and many of his coalition allies reflects how deep the grievances and resentments against Zehri ran. However, the ‘floor-crossers’ who voted against their leadership’s instructions run the risk of disqualification under Article 63A, which lays down a vote for CM as one of the four instances where defying the party whip attracts this penalty. Whether any such challenge is in the offing it is too early to say, and may even prove unlikely judging from the mood of the house.

CM Abdul Qudoos Bizenjo thus becomes the youngest chief executive of the restive province, but there remains a cloud over the legitimacy of his election to the house in the general elections of 2013, given that he won with just 544 votes of the 683 or 1.18 percent of the total votes actually cast in his Awaran constituency. The area has been a hotbed of the nationalist insurgency sputtering on in Balochistan, and parties such as the Balochistan National Party-Mengal with a traditional base of political support in the area have been complaining since the elections that they were ‘prevented’ from fully participating or canvassing in the constituency. Be that as it may, considerations of democratic legitimacy of the new incumbent and the issue of floor crossing may well be swept under the carpet for the expedient reason of accepting the new ‘order’ and moving on from the recent past. While CM Bizenjo will now be installed in office and has even indicated the makeup of his cabinet, the PkMAP candidate Agha Liaquat Ali referred in his speech after the house had voted to the dark forebodings that have surrounded events in Balochistan since the no-confidence motion was moved. These centre on the possibility that the new CM may only have been brought to office to preside over the dissolution of the Balochistan Assembly, a step that may trigger similar dissolutions of the Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Assemblies by the incumbent PPP and PTI governments respectively. Were that to transpire, as many fear, it would confirm that the move against Zehri, based as it was on real grievances, may be part of a bigger plan to prevent the Senate elections in March, which the PML-N was anticipated to win a majority in, and even the general elections in July-August. Any such rolling up of the present dispensation could cause a constitutional and political crisis, the former because of the census issue, the latter because such moves would be seen as aimed at preventing Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N reaping the benefits of their still intact considerable vote bank. Pakistan cannot afford the ramifications of the unfolding of such a scenario, the much touted longer term interim government idea notwithstanding. Democracy has struggled, and it appears is still struggling to establish firm roots in our soil.

Sunday, January 7, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 6, 2018

Of plots and conspiracies

Opinion amongst the PML-N government’s members and their allies seems more and more to be veering towards seeing the ongoing political crisis in Balochistan as a plot against the Senate polls in March. The ruling PML-N has high stakes in that election since it promises a majority to it in the upper house. If to that delicious prospect is added current trends in the run-up to the general elections in July-August, one can understand the PML-N’s anxiety about the no-confidence motion moved against its Chief Minister Nawab Sanaullah Zehri. The fear is that whatever the outcome of the no-confidence move, it could trigger a dissolution of the Balochistan Assembly, which could disrupt the Senate elections. Further, if other provincial Assemblies, particularly those of Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, led by the PPP and PTI respectively, follow suit, that may not only put paid to the Senate elections but even disrupt the present democratic dispensation, delay the general elections and usher in an establishment-backed technocratic government for an extended period until the dust settles and democratic business-as-usual, with ‘changes’, can be restored. This is not as paranoid a scenario as it may seem at first glance. Already there are rumours of some technocrats preening to assume the mantle of holding the extended interim fort. Meanwhile the abandonment of Chief Minister Zehri by his own party and coalition allies is gaining steady momentum. The latest ‘desertions’ are the only woman minister in the Balochistan cabinet, Rahat Faiq Jamali, and recently appointed Adviser to the Chief Minister on Excise and Taxation (to replace sacked mover of the no-confidence motion Mir Amanullah Notezai of coalition partner PML-Q), Mir Abdul Majid Abro. As if this rolling tide of abandoning what increasingly looks like a sinking ship were not enough, Senator Osman Kakar of the Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party has revealed that two of their MPAs have received threatening calls to support the no-confidence motion. This ‘epidemic’ of calls from some specific numbers is growing. National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq had referred to similar calls to MNAs not so long ago. Whoever is the author of such calls seems oblivious to the poor light it throws on some state institutions. As far as the no-confidence movers group is concerned, they seem to be growing in confidence, with former home minister Sarfaraz Bugti claiming they have the support of 26 MPAs so far (just seven short of a majority).

The plot or conspiracy is said to revolve around three factors: the Senate elections, Zehri’s loyalty to Nawaz Sharif in the middle of the latter’s tussle with the establishment, and the overall prism of federal politics. While the second factor lies at the heart of these moves and developments, neither Zehri nor Nawaz Sharif can shrug off their own responsibility for bringing things to this pass. The former has a plethora of complaints against him from members of his cabinet, PML-N and allies, for arrogance. This has obviously steadily eroded his ability since coming to power two years ago to keep the coalition intact and pre-empt any ‘revolt’ inside the PML-N. Nawaz Sharif on the other hand fell foul of the establishment for a range of alleged ‘crimes’, not the least of which was his reiterated desire for normalisation of relations with India, prosecuting a former COAS General (retd) Musharraf on treason and murder charges, attempting to carve out more space for civilian supremacy over the military establishment, etc. And Nawaz attempted to do all this without it seems having learnt any lessons from his previous tenures. He seemed completely oblivious over the four years of his tenure in office to exactly where his strength lay. The opposition, particularly the PPP, pulled his chestnuts out of the fire during the 2014 sit-in by standing solidly by him in parliament. That was all the proof needed to understand that the real strength of any elected civilian government lies in parliament and parliament alone. Contrary to this wisdom, Nawaz ignored parliament (with nary an appearance in the house) and could not resist the temptation to once again go for the PPP’s jugular in ham-handed fashion. This has earned him Asif Zardari’s hostility and the prospect of seeing his fortress under siege demolished bit by bit, starting with Balochistan.

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 3, 2018

Portent of things to come?

Chief Minister (CM) Balochistan Nawab Sanaullah Zehri faces a serious challenge from the no-confidence motion moved against him by 14 members of the opposition and his own coalition parties. This development prompted the CM to curtail his foreign visit and rush home to deal with the crisis. His first act on touching home soil was to sack Home Minister Sarfaraz Bugti of his own party the PML-N and Special Assistant to the CM on Excise and Taxation Mir Amanullah Notezai of the PML-Q for supporting the motion. He then held a meeting with a delegation of coalition partner Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP) led by its chief Mehmood Khan Achakzai, who pledged his support to the CM. Later Achakzai cautioned the movers of the motion not to play into the hands of non-democratic forces. He said the motion was intended to punish then for supporting former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. Rifts had been reported for some time in the ranks of the PML-N-led coalition over the allocation of development funds and the replacement of former deputy speaker of the Assembly, Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo of the coalition’s PML-Q with a member of the PkMAP without consulting the PML-Q. These and other issues of discord point towards the failure of the CM to take his coalition colleagues, and even members of his own party, along. The no-confidence move therefore seems to have been gestating for some time. In a house of 65 MPAs, with 52 with the ruling coalition and 13 with the opposition, on paper the CM’s position may appear unassailable. But if the sacking of one minister of the PML-N and one of the PML-Q, plus the resignation of the PML-N’s Minister for Fisheries Mir Sarfaraz Domki are indicators, the CM does not seem to command the confidence of his own party or the coalition. If these three members are added to the 14 movers of the no-confidence motion, they only need another 16 members to succeed in removing the CM.
What could be the possible outcomes of the move and its implications for the political lay of the land? If the move succeeds and the Assembly chooses a successor, the Assembly could survive until the March Senate elections and the general elections around July-August. If no successor is chosen, fears are being expressed of the under threat CM dissolving the Assembly. That would of course put the cat among the pigeons since the Senate elections would be disrupted and, quite possibly, set in motion a rolling process of the dissolution of other provincial Assemblies that would pose questions about the general elections. Of course there is nothing to prevent the National and provincial Assembly elections being held on separate days. But this new uncertainty in the country’s most troubled province could possibly spread to the rest of the country. How that may impact the general elections schedule is not known. Political turmoil in Balochistan and its possible impact on the rest of the country could disrupt the preparations of the Election Commission of Pakistan to hold the general elections according to the constitutional schedule. The resort to the 1998 census as the basis for holding general elections is beset with its own set of problems, including the need for a constitutional amendment and possible legal challenges to any such proposal. There appear therefore to be a lot of balls in the air with few answers.

Although Mir Abdul Quddus Bizenjo, the central figure reportedly in the no-confidence move, denied any ‘hidden powers’ were behind the gambit, it is difficult to ignore the fact that Balochistan’s crisis could be the beginning of a process to deny the ruling PML-N the advantages of the impending Senate and general elections, in both of which they remain the front runners despite their troubles. If Assembly dissolutions render the Senate and general elections uncertain, the outcome could be a technocratic government of longer duration, an idea with some takers here and there.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Jan 2, 2018

The compulsive tweeter

US President Donald Trump has raised the art of tweeting to a major channel for not so much policy announcements as shaking up the world as we know it. In his latest and first of the new year offerings, he has denounced Pakistan as giving nothing but lies and deceit back to the US despite receiving $ 33 billion in aid since 9/11. Not unexpectedly, the strong and undiplomatic language (a characteristic of Trump the compulsive tweeter) has set off a fresh war of words between Islamabad and Washington. The turn in relations between Pakistan and the US from uneasy allies to increasingly strained ties barely describable as friends started in August 2017 with Trump’s announcement of a new approach to the long running Afghan war. This approach in essence relied on military means to convince the Afghan Taliban they could not achieve victory on the battlefield and would therefore be better served by returning to the negotiating table to hammer out a political settlement. In tandem with this more muscular approach, Trump reversed his campaign thinking about withdrawing altogether from Afghanistan and instead hinted at boosting the US troops presence in that country. In addition, in the August 2017 policy announcement and in a series of bristling statements by civilian and military spokesmen of the US administration since then, Pakistan had, in the inimitable words of US Vice President Mike Spence, ‘been put on notice’. These statements elicited a tough response from ISPR chief Major General Asif Ghafoor, in which he coined the new phrase ‘no more’ in answer to Washington’s refrain over the years to ‘do more’. If anything, ‘no more’ seems to have acquired the status of the new leit motif of Pakistan’s response to US calls for acting against the safe havens Washington says the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network enjoy on Pakistani soil. Pakistan, especially since Operation Zarb-e-Azb, asserts that it has in fact acted without discrimination against terrorists in clearing FATA and is resentful of its financial and human sacrifices in the war on terror going unrecognised and unappreciated. It also disputes the figure of $ 33 billion in aid, pointing out that $ 15 billion was recompense under the Coalition Support Funds (CSF) for expenditures incurred in the war on terror. If the ISPR statement represented the first drops of rain, what Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif has said and what seems in the offing after high level cabinet and national security committee meetings is a flood of even tougher responses. The US ambassador too has been told of Pakistan’s resentment of Trump’s tweet in no uncertain terms.

While our anger is understandable and to a certain extent justified because of the rude, unprecedented, undiplomatic language used by the most powerful compulsive tweeter in the world today, both civilian and military wisdom advises a cool and cautious approach. This is because Pakistan (and the world) today are dealing with a US president who has proved unstable and unpredictable and therefore perhaps not to be taken lightly. His track record in just one year in office has upset allies and long standing friends because of his boorish demeanour, so much so that NATO (over funding and attitude to Russia), the EU (over trade, the Iran nuclear deal, etc) and the world at large (over the retreat from the climate change treaty) are puzzled how to deal with him. To be fair, the US does have a case vis-à-vis its relationship with Pakistan. Despite the claim that our military and counterterrorism operations are without discrimination, we have yet to convincingly win the argument that there is no presence of the Afghan Taliban and Haqqani Network on our soil. This may not be an operational presence, but the suspicion lingers that these are rear base areas these groups retreat to from the fighting in Afghanistan in order to rest, regroup, plan and then return to the battlefield inside our neighbouring country. The US was annoyed when after rescuing an American-Canadian couple, we refused access to the US to a captured kidnapper, exacerbating thereby Washington’s suspicions of our collusion with the Haqqanis. National pride, self-respect and dignity are of course to be upheld, but this must not be done in a manner that may trigger a complete cut off of US aid (not CSF) and close the door in our face to the international financial institutions we may have to turn to to meet our external financing deficit. Pragmatism and recognition of the dangerous nature of the present president of a superpower should inform a measured response, not anger. And efforts to restart negotiations between the warring parties in Afghanistan must be redoubled to bring peace without and within.