Friday, June 22, 2012
A new prime minister Pakistan has a new elected prime minister: Raja Pervez Ashraf. On a day when the entire country’s gaze was transfixed on the National Assembly, the denouement came as no surprise. Raja sahib, the PPP-led coalition’s candidate, garnered 211 votes, while his rival candidate, the PML-N’s Sardar Mehtab Abbasi could only manage 89. Only 300 votes were cast out of a total house of 338, the reasons for this discrepancy ranging from boycotts to absence from the house of some members. At the time of writing these lines, the premier-elect had briefly addressed the house. Later, there was to be a meeting at the presidency in celebration of what the president called the people’s trust in democracy as demonstrated by the peaceful, free of controversy voting in of a new prime minister in the house. In contrast with the smooth manner in which the transition took place, there were quite a few jolts before and even up to the last moment. First and foremost, the PPP’s preferred candidate, Makhdoom Shahabuddin was knocked out thanks to the Anti-Narcotics Force, which timed its non-bailable warrants of arrest for Shahabuddin, the former health minister, exquisitely within a few hours of the Makhdoom filing his nomination papers. Presumably to avoid another crisis, the PPP decided to go with its cover candidate. As it turned out of course, perhaps the development was not without its silver lining. Raja sahib was helped by the last minute withdrawal as a presidential candidate of JUI-F chief Maulana Fazlur Rehman, even if his party decided to stay away from the voting. It must be said to the Maulana’s credit though that he seems to have imbibed some wisdom since his years of flirtation with the Musharraf dictatorship, in that he stated on the eve of the prime ministerial election that it would be better to stick with ‘one of ours’ (politicians) rather than a General. This reflects the growing consensus in Pakistan’s polity and society that despite its flaws and weaknesses (in the area of delivery mainly), democracy is at this juncture and perhaps for the foreseeable future, the only way forward for the country. This is the distillation of the adverse experience of military dictatorship in our history (30 years consumed by these illegal usurpations), which has proved beyond doubt that military dictatorships are disasters waiting to happen that leave behind more problems than they started out with. The continuity of democratic evolution, which helps weed out the dross and bring forward better stuff, is the only possible course for correction of our faults and problems. The collective wisdom of our elected representatives, even where it fails, is still superior to the whims, wishes, caprices and agendas of any dictator. Having said that, it must be admitted that the new premier-elect’s task is far from easy. The next step will be the swearing in of a ‘new’ cabinet, although it is expected that many of the faces will be the same old ones, such being the human resource pool available. Perhaps in order of priority, Raja Pervez Ashraf will have to tackle first and foremost the severe energy crisis that has crippled the economy and brought normal life to a grinding and painful halt. Perhaps Raja sahib’s credentials in this regard are tainted by the Rental Power Plants fiasco, but one hopes he has learnt something from that bruising experience. Following on from the energy crisis is the state of the economy. If energy is available, the chances of stabilisation, if not recovery, improve immeasurably. The rest nudges us onto the third great challenge before the incoming prime minister: our foreign and strategic policies that impact back on the economy and life in general. So long as Pakistan is perceived as a breeding ground for terrorists and whose circle of operations has long enveloped the country itself, we will remain relegated to virtual pariah status in the world, an uncomfortable isolation that bodes little good. The relationship with the US/NATO, our involvement in Afghanistan, our reluctance/unwillingness to deny the Afghan Taliban safe havens on our soil, all these are issues requiring urgent attention/resolution. This menu would deter many a brave heart. Let us hope Raja Pervez Ashraf is made of the sterner stuff required (the judiciary willing).
FC in the dock The three-member bench of the Supreme Court (SC) headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has pinned the blame for the disappearances of the missing persons in Balochistan squarely on the Frontier Corps (FC). The court came to this conclusion on the basis of reports and evidence presented to it, which in one instance at least, established the culpability of the FC. And given the spate of such incidents over the last few years in Balochistan, it would not be illogical to surmise that this was not an isolated incident but rather part of a pattern in the ‘dirty war’ being waged against dissident nationalists and the intelligentsia of Balochistan, in the mistaken belief that if such ‘troublemakers’ are eliminated, the problem would go away. In essence, what the FC and intelligence agencies have been up to is a slow genocide in the province. This is a high risk, highly dangerous course that has stoked the fires of separatism in the province and threatens the very foundations of the country. It is also proof that we have failed to learn any lessons from our fraught history, in which the attempt to solve essentially political issues through the use of force by the state (or rather the deep state) has more often than not brought us tragedy and enormous loss (the East Pakistan example should suffice to make the point). The SC has, since the restoration of the judiciary, taken pains to focus on the missing persons issue, especially in Balochistan where it has assumed the proportions of an epidemic. The SC bench therefore ordered the intelligence agencies and police to recover and produce before the court at the next hearing on July 9 at the Quetta Registry of the SC, at least the 93 missing persons whose cases have been proved to be genuine. Of course this will not satisfy those in Balochistan or elsewhere in the country who hold that even one missing person is one too many, not to mention the quoted figure by nationalist sources and the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons platform of thousands of such victims of the abduct, torture, dump bodies cruel policy. Nevertheless, even these few initial drops of rain can only bring hope and cheer to the families of the missing, who have been running from pillar to post for years in search of justice. The SC also ordered the federal defence secretary, Balochistan chief and home secretaries, IG police, FC IG to take concrete measures for recovery of the identified beyond doubt missing persons. The court ordered the Balochistan Home Secretary Naseemullah Bazai to raise the compensation for the families of 381 persons whose bodies have been found all over the province from the Balochistan government’s contemplated Rs 0.4 million each to Rs 1 million and pay it within three days. The court requires a compliance report in this regard at the next hearing on July 9. Of these 381 dumped bodies, the home secretary revealed that 102were found in 2010, 203 in 2011 and 76 already in 2012. Clearly then, the policy of kill and dump is alive and kicking and arguably getting worse. While the SC’s efforts in this matter are a source of solace to the families of the disappeared as well as right thinking people throughout the country, it constitutes one of the toughest challenges before the court. It remains to be seen whether, despite the clear and uncompromising instructions of the SC, the intelligence establishment and the FC, cocooned to date in a culture of impunity and non-accountability, will respond positively and do what the court requires. The test lies ahead.
Looming judicial tyranny Yousaf Raza Gilani is gone. The incumbent PPP is discussing his replacement. Whoever succeeds Gilani still runs the risk of being subjected to the same pressures from the judiciary as Gilani faced, and which eventually ended in his ignominious departure, not at the hands of the people or their elected representatives, which is the norm in all parliamentary democracies, but at the hands of an activist judiciary that has opened itself up in the process to grave criticism. For the benefit of our readers, let us retrace some of the steps and developments that led to this denouement. The National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO) was essentially a political deal between Musharraf and the PPP led at that time by the late Benazir Bhutto. It gave relief to over 8,000 people affected by charges of corruption and other misdemeanours, of whom only about 80 were politicians. While the Supreme Court (SC) struck it down on the strict constitutional/legal criterion of being discriminatory, and ordered all closed cases of the beneficiaries to be reopened, its subsequent focus seemed to be on just one of those beneficiaries: President Asif Ali Zardari. Gilani took his stand on the basis of Article 248 of the constitution, which lays down that the president enjoys immunity so long as he is in office. This is a principle that is the bedrock of every constitution known to man. Take the example of French former president Sarkozy. After losing the presidential election, his immunity extended one month after leaving office, according to the French constitution. As soon as that grace period expired, Sarkozy is being hauled over the coals in various cases, including the murky Agosta submarine affair that involves a Pakistan angle. The SC saw fit in its wisdom to ignore all this constitutional edifice despite the argument being presented that President Zardari could be acted against in the Cotecna case after he leaves office. Instead, the SC suggested that if ‘someone’ claimed immunity, he must apply for it to the court (while Article 248 leaves no or little room for ambiguity). The government appeared reluctant to subject itself to an ‘interpretation’ of Article 248 that could open new cans of worms for it, hence its reluctance to pursue the immunity matter in all the proceedings. The SC ordered the chief executive, then Prime Minister Gilani, to reopen the Swiss case despite presidential immunity and the reluctance of the Swiss judicial authorities themselves to reopen the case in the absence of fresh substantive evidence, those being their judicial rules. The insistence despite all these facts by the SC indicated to some circles that some extraneous factor may have crept into these judicial proceedings. Be that as it may, the first casualty of this jurisprudence is a unanimously elected prime minister at the hands of the judiciary. And there is no telling whether he will be the last. It may be noticed in passing that the reluctance of Gilani to file an appeal against his contempt conviction suggests a lack of confidence in the impartiality of the court. This is a serious development with implications for the future. The separation of powers enshrined in the constitution is a reflection of the best practice and constitutional structure from world experience. The framers of the US constitution were clear that individuals or groups could not be relied upon to exercise restraint on the basis of good intentions, therefore checks and balances and the separation of powers was necessary. Every institution therefore is enjoined by this schema to remain within its boundaries and not encroach on other institutions’ turf. Unfortunately, the restored superior judiciary’s activism, unrestrained in some instances by the time honoured principle of judicial restraint, is deleterious for the respect and dignity of the judiciary itself since it opens up the judiciary to debate and controversy. The SC’s overruling the Speaker of the National Assembly can be considered a weakening of the principle that parliament is supreme. In fact, the essence of the verdict against the Speaker’s finding is to declare, at least in the sphere of the issues raised by the case, that parliament’s supremacy is subject to the will, not of the people, but of the judiciary. This is a dangerous chink in the wall of separation of powers construct. Since there is no higher judicial forum than the SC, its verdicts acquire permanence (we may recall the shelf life of the doctrine of necessity to illustrate the point). The US Supreme Court declared: “We are not final because we are infallible. We are infallible because we are final.” Hidden in that message is the thought that if the judiciary does not judiciously impose restraint on itself, the direction in which things may head would alarmingly resemble judicial tyranny.
Virtual judicial coup The Supreme Court’s (SC’s) verdict on the petitions challenging the ruling of the Speaker of the National Assembly (NA) that rejected the argument that Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani stood disqualified after being convicted and sentenced for contempt of court has pronounced that he does stand disqualified, not only from the premiership, but from membership of parliament as well. Not just that, the SC in its short order has laid down that he cannot stand for election for five years. To that end, the SC has sent instructions to the Election Commission (EC) to issue a notification to that effect. Meantime the PPP’s Central Executive Committee (CEC), which happened to be meeting when the verdict was announced, revealed its decisions on the crisis through a press conference by PPP leaders. The gist of the CEC’s decisions was that despite having reservations about the SC’s verdict, they had accepted the court’s finding that the conviction and sentencing till the rising of the court of Gilani for contempt on April 26 meant that he was no longer the PM, and with retrospective effect, had been removed on and since that date. The PPP has appealed to its workers and supporters to remain calm and restrained, despite the fact that the verdict is bound to inflame opinion in the PPP and allied camp. The CEC has empowered party Co-chairperson President Asif Ali Zardari to take whatever decisions he thinks fit regarding a replacement for Gilani. The intriguing question of course is whether the new PM will suffer the same pressure from the SC to write the letter to the Swiss authorities regarding President Asif Ali Zardari that the court was insisting on Gilani writing, and refusal to comply with which had attracted the contempt conviction for the former PM. In that case, the looming confrontation between state institutions, which began as a confrontation between the judiciary and the executive, could expand to now a confrontation between the judiciary and parliament as well. After all, the SC’s verdict overruling the Speaker of the NA too has set an unprecedented example, one that will reverberate in our jurisprudence for a long time to come. Questions have also been raised whether all the decisions and acts of the former PM since April 26 to date stand. The most important of these acts was the passing of the budget. It is possible that the detailed judgement may throw more light on this matter. Normally, courts are mindful that retrospective judgements should not disrupt things done and transactions closed to an extent that causes greater difficulties. Yousaf Raza Gilani was unanimously elected PM after the 2008 elections, arguably in the context of the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in end 2007, a tragedy that led to widespread unrest and riots, especially in Sindh. The sympathy factor had a great deal to do with the results of the 2008 elections in which, despite garnering only a plurality, the PPP was the only party in a position to form a coalition government. The other factor that worked in favour of the consensus that surrounded Gilani’s election as PM was the relatively good relations at the time between the PPP and the main opposition party the PML-N. By 2009, those relations had already soured to the point where the coalition saw the departure of the PML-N and its open opposition to the seeming reluctance of the PPP to restore Chief Justice of Pakistan Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry and the deposed superior judiciary. Since then, the impression has been unmistakable that the SC has tilted more against the incumbent PPP than in any other direction, even resorting to picking and choosing which cases to hear on a priority or fast track basis. This has invited criticism of the judiciary for alleged bias. True or not, such criticism may well find a fresh lease of life after the SC, in an unprecedented verdict, has deposed a sitting PM. Such ‘treatment’ at the hands of the judiciary is likely to resurrect the party’s memory of past injustices at the hands of the judiciary, the most poignant example being the case of Z A Bhutto. This verdict will have legal as well as political implications. Whether our nascent democratic system will survive these fresh storms can only be left to the imagination at this point.
Wednesday, June 13, 2012
Malik Riaz’s tirade A virtual storm has overtaken the country as a result of the tirade launched by property tycoon Malik Riaz in his press conference following his appearance before the Supreme Court (SC) in the Arsalan Iftikhar case. Although Malik Riaz’s written statement submitted before the SC had levelled serious charges of being blackmailed by Arsalan Iftikhar out of millions of rupees in cash and other benefits, his demeanour before the court gave no hint of what was to follow. In his press conference, Malik Riaz shifted his line of attack from the son to the father, from Arsalan to the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. Malik Riaz posed three questions directly to the CJP. First, he asked the CJP to tell the nation how many times he had met him in the darkness of the night? Second, was Arsalan not present in these meetings? Third, how many times had the CJP met Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani at Malik Riaz’s partner Ahmed Khalil’s residence, where the sitting registrar of the SC was also present? According to Malik Riaz, a sitting judge of the SC also used to participate in these meetings. Why did the CJP not take suo motu notice then, and only after the media broke the news, asked Malik Riaz. When did the CJP come to know of Arsalan’s wrongdoings, he asked? (Aitzaz Ahsan has stated that he had informed the CJP of the rumours swirling about Arsalan's business dealings six months ago.) Malik Riaz says a mutual friend of his and the CJP told the latter about the blackmailing of his son but the CJP refuted this and labelled Malik Riaz himself a blackmailer. These statements are startling enough, but Malik Riaz then descended to some wild and incredible assertions. He said the CJP should not have taken up cases against him, implying that since he was being blackmailed by his son, justice would be compromised. He claims the FIA was ordered to implicate him in a murder case, without clarifying who might be interested in such a step. The FIA is controlled by the federal government, the top leaders of the ruling party, President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani being Malik Riaz’s friends, according to his own admission. Who then could have so ordered the FIA? In the next breath Malik Riaz exonerates by implication both the PPP-led federal government and the military from any responsibility for this ‘tsunami’ by declaring there is no ‘third party’ behind the controversy. Though he claims he did not bribe anyone, but was blackmailed, in the next breath he admits his son-in-law did pay bribes! Last but not least, and possibly the piece de resistance, he asserts that the judiciary is not free but being run by a ‘don’, i.e. Arsalan Iftikhar! He ends by promising more startling revelations “in due time”. In response to the diatribe of Malik Riaz, the CJP has taken suo motu notice of the press conference, set up a three-member bench to charge Riaz with contempt, and called a full court meeting of the SC on June 15. No one is in a position presently to ascertain the truth or otherwise of Malik Riaz’s charges, but the fact remains that a distinction needs to be made between what appear prima facie to be serious allegations against the CJP and his son, and wild statements that do not stand up to logic or scrutiny. Both serious allegations and wild statements however have dragged the judiciary into the mud. Whatever the CJP and the SC do in their defence and in defence of the respect and dignity of the judiciary, the taint of accusation will be difficult to jettison or wash clean. It would be in the interests of justice, the respect and dignity of the judiciary, and the country if the CJP were to contemplate stepping aside or at the very least going on leave until the whole matter is cleared up. The charges are too serious and the personage being attacked, the CJP, too important to allow the affair to be expediently dealt with. The truth must be brought out without fear or favour, and all those involved receive their just desserts according to their guilt or innocence as determined by a thorough investigation and final pronouncement by the apex court to salvage something of its battered image.
Tuesday, June 12, 2012
Supreme Court on Frontier Corps IG Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, while hearing the missing persons’ case, expressed extreme annoyance at the Inspector General (IG) of the Frontier Corps (FC) Major General Obaidullah Khan Khattak for holding a press conference on the issue, contrary to the court’s orders. The CJP went so far as to say that it was not the business of people in uniform to hold press conferences. Further, the CJP raised the startling possibility that the court could pass a coercive order under Article 190 to summon COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani to explain the conduct of the FC IG and inform the court whether what was going on was the way to run the country. Reflecting on the state of affairs in Balochistan, the CJP said it was an issue that could not be ignored as the province was the most important part of the country. Conditions in the province, instead of improving, were getting worse by the day, the CJP argued. As proof of this, the CJP referred to the tragedy that those people missing were in danger of their lives if their relatives or others approached the court for redress. As an example, the CJP pointed to the case of three missing persons who the court ordered should be recovered, but they were only ‘recovered’ when their dead bodies were dumped. MPA Sadiq Umrani was a witness to the butchering of two people. Around 20 people have been killed in the last 2-3 days, another member of the bench, Justice Jawwad Khwaja, revealed, while 835 incidents had occurred but no one was caught. The claim in the IG FC’s press conference that all that was wrong in Balochistan was the handiwork of foreign agencies evoked the retort from the CJP that in that case, what were our agencies doing. This old, tattered ‘foreign hand’ refrain was also taken up the other day by Justice (retd) Javed Iqbal, the head of the missing persons commission. This concerted and obvious attempt to whitewash the doings of the FC and intelligence agencies in disappearing people whose tortured bodies are then dumped all over the province has been refuted by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP), which said it had always provided full and verified details of each case of missing persons, a fact reflected by the recovery of those so named. In our history the ‘foreign hand’ excuse has always been used to deny the ground realities and real responsibility for wrongdoing. In answer to the FC’s counsel’s assertion that the FC was being maligned and ‘victimised’, the CJP referred to the video presented in the court showing FC personnel abducting three people. Why, the CJP, asked, should the chief of the FC not be held responsible for such happenings? The counsel then suggested the Supreme Court (SC) should order the withdrawal of the FC from Balochistan, to which the CJP retorted that this was the work of a magistrate, not the apex court. The CJP may be embattled at present because of unrelated causes, but his and the SC’s role in the missing persons case is admirable. Unfortunately, the court is up against the arrogance of ‘untouchable’ impunity that the security and intelligence agencies have enjoyed throughout our history. From the IG FC downwards (and upwards), these agencies do not consider themselves answerable or accountable to anyone or anything. The FC’s counsel can go so far as to say the constitution either does not exist or at least is not being implemented in the country. That is precisely the responsibility of the superior judiciary to ensure the rule of law prevails. As the CJP said in his remarks during he hearing, no one has the right to kill even criminals, let alone suspects whose crime, if any, is yet to be established through due process. The lawlessness with which Balochistan is afflicted at the hands of the FC and sister agencies is a total subversion of the law and constitution. Hence the SC is to be supported in its efforts to right these obvious and brutal wrongs before the shortsighted repressive policies of the deep state produce a cataclysm that threatens the very existence of the country.
Monday, June 11, 2012
‘Support’ from an unexpected quarter The only growth industry in Pakistan, it seems, is conspiracy theory. Rumours and speculations have been swirling in the void since the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s son, Dr Arsalan Iftikhar, has been dragged into the controversy surrounding alleged cash payments and other benefits from properly tycoon Malik Riaz to Arsalan. Based on speculations about who might be the beneficiary/ies of the scandal, fingers have been pointed at the government and the military. Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani has attempted to refute such speculations during an interaction with journalists in Lahore on Sunday. He said that no evidence had so far surfaced against Arsalan, therefore there was no justification, as some have done, for asking for the CJP’s resignation on ethical grounds. He firmly denied that the PPP government or the military were beneficiaries of the controversy. His government respects institutions, the PM asserted, and had no score to settle with the judiciary. In answer to a question regarding Rehman Malik’s relationship with Malik Riaz, the PM dismissed it by saying Mr Riaz has good relations with a number of leaders. In reply to another query, he firmly ruled out any chances of the imposition of martial law as there was no room for such acts any longer. The PM could not resist a dig at the CJP by remarking lightly that if for constitutional reasons, the CJP could not hear the case of his own son, he should consider the PM’s son his own and hear his case. He went on to argue that he had been facing similar allegations regarding his sons for four years, whereas the Arsalan case was only four days old. At the other end of the political spectrum, the PML-N’s Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif tilted in favour of the CJP, calling what was going on as “deplorable”, and characterising the CJP as the “last hope” against a wholesale takeover of the country by the PPP led by President Asif Zardari. He feels it should be left to the judges of the superior judiciary to decide if there was a conspiracy afoot against the CJP and the judiciary. He pleaded for the whole nation to stand by the judiciary in this hour of trial. The scene will now shift back to the Supreme Court (SC), since Malik Riaz is reported to have returned to the country on Monday, and the SC will restart hearing the cases against Malik Riaz from today. These cases relate to Malik Riaz’s Bahria property empire, whose thousands of victims who have been deprived of their life savings without any recompense, whether in the shape of promised plots or return of their money, are still clamouring for justice. These cases have been overshadowed by the Arsalan scandal, and the alleged link between the benefits to Arsalan and these cases as stated by Malik Riaz, has yet to be proved. Murkier and murkier.
Sunday, June 10, 2012
The Arsalan affair Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry’s son, Dr Arsalan Iftikhar, has in a statement submitted in the Supreme Court (SC), strongly refuted any relationship, intimacy or acquaintance with real estate tycoon Malik Riaz, his daughter or son-in-law. The statement is a rebuttal of the allegations by Malik Riaz leaked to the media, that Arsalan had received Rs 400 million from him to influence the cases Malik Riaz faces in the SC, along with other benefits such as travel, accommodation abroad, shopping, etc. Dismissing the allegations as “baseless, frivolous and unfounded”, Arsalan argues that no “cogent and logical evidence” has been submitted to substantiate the accusations, and even the media persons who have been fanning the story admit they have no proof of the matter and therefore their statements should be dismissed as hearsay. If and when any cogent and admissible evidence is presented against him, Arsalan said he would furnish a comprehensive reply. Arsalan has prayed to the court to deal strictly with Malik Riaz according to the law for besmirching his name and dragging him into court. Arsalan stressed that whenever he had travelled abroad, it was always at his own expense. While the two-member bench hearing the case will no doubt take account of Arsalan’s refutation of the charges against him, it will have to wait until the ‘ailing’ Malik Riaz returns to the country and deposes, as he has promised, before the court. Strictly speaking, while the charge of besmirching Arsalan’s repute has weight, it cannot be said that it is Malik Riaz who has dragged Arsalan into court. It was the suo motu notice of the spreading scandal by none other than his father, the honourable CJP, that brought the affair into the legal domain. Initially the CJP seemed inclined to head the bench, attempting justifications by recourse to Islamic history examples, but then it seemed that better sense had prevailed and the CJP appropriately recused himself from the bench. Meanwhile Malik Riaz’s plea to constitute a larger bench to hear the case of immense importance with national level implications has been turned down by the CJP in his order of June 7. Other parties have by now also jumped into the fray. Barrister Zafarullah Khan of the Watan Party has petitioned the SC to issue a red warrant against Malik Riaz in order to bring him back to the country and present him before the court. That petition is still pending, but Malik Riaz’s counsel has stated that the ill Malik Riaz will return soon and depose before the SC. Musharraf’s All Pakistan Muslim League General Secretary Barrister Muhammad Ali Saif wants a commission (‘tis the season for commissions methinks) to be formed with former judges and heads of investigation agencies to probe the allegations against Arsalan. He thinks a probe by the SC would not be within the parameters of justice, implying a lack of confidence in the impartiality of his brother judges in a case involving the CJP’s son. The Pakistan Bar Council has similar views, arguing for the SC to distance itself from the case and hand it over to any investigation agency. These objections and reservations on the matter being dealt with by the SC constitute a vote of no confidence in the impartiality of the SC bench in such a sensitive matter having ramifications for the CJP himself. Whether these reservations are valid or not, and without imputing any partiality to the honourable judges of the bench hearing the case, the argument that since the case involves the CJP’s son, it may be considered too close to the SC for it to be appropriate for the SC itself to conduct investigations and hearings into it, is not without merit. While there are two opinions about the appropriateness of the CJP’s swift response through a suo motu notice of the Arsalan affair, since the matter is sub judice, it would not be in the fitness of things to say more than plead for a thorough, impartial, fair probe. This is critical for the reputation of the CJP, the SC, the entire superior judiciary, and indeed, for the country as a whole.
Saturday, June 9, 2012
Free and fair elections There are some in Pakistan who are beginning to wonder whether, in the middle of the complex ructions afflicting the polity, the scheduled elections will take place. Although Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani has reiterated that the elections will be held according to schedule, apprehensions are growing. Irrespective of the fate of the elections scheduled to take place by 2013 latest, it is heartening to note that for the present and future electoral process, the Supreme Court (SC) has directed the Election Commission (EC) in a judgement on a petition seeking reduction in elections expenditures to devise a strategy to ensure free and fair elections. The petition was moved by the Workers Party Pakistan. Eight major political parties participated in the proceedings, but the ruling PPP stayed away. The SC has, amongst other things in the 87-page judgement, questioned the first past the post (FPTP) system, which our parliamentary democracy has been based on in conformity with the British system from which our practices are derived. In the SC’s view, the FPTP system, which declares the winner in an electoral contest the candidate who gets the largest number of votes irrespective of the percentage of votes that represents, violates the principle of majority. Taking its cue from a widely accepted practice in many countries that require a run off election between the first and second biggest vote getting candidates in order to determine who, if any of them, can get 50 percent or more of the votes cast in the run off, the SC has suggested to the EC to explore ways and means to introduce appropriate steps such as a run off election in the event that in the first round of voting, no candidate garners 50 percent. Also, the SC would like a column inserted on the ballot paper that offers voters the option of ‘none of the above’ in case they do not wish to vote for any of the listed candidates. The SC would like voting to be declared compulsory, therefore the ‘none of the above’ column would spare voters having to tick any candidate they were less than enthusiastic about. The contentious issue of the preparation/revision of the electoral rolls is dealt with in the judgement. This is an issue that has seen the SC at loggerheads with the EC in recent days on the delays in completing this all-important task. The SC would like this process completed ‘immediately’ through credible and independent agencies, if necessary by going door to door. The SC thinks this task could be expeditiously and transparently performed by inducting the army and the Frontier Corps (FC). Although the consideration of having the necessary manpower for the huge task may underlie the SC’s recommendation to induct the army and the FC, this is likely to raise the hackles of those who recall the role of the military in our history and even the revelations in the Asghar Khan case of behind the scenes manipulation of elections by the military and intelligence agencies. It may be wiser therefore, to seek some other way to complete this task and keep the military/paramilitary out of the picture and confined to their mandated tasks. The SC wants the EC to undertake monitoring of the election expenses of all candidates, including the use of private transport to take voters to the polling stations, the use of ‘parchis’ (notes from the powerful that facilitate candidates and/or voters), and the setting up of candidates’ camps near polling stations (from which they can influence the balloting process). The rules already require the EC to monitor election expenses, but this has been practised more in the breach in our history. The real issue is the creation of an empowered and independent EC that can carry through the sacred task of ensuring the sanctity of the ballot. For that, the behind closed doors talks going on between the major political parties on a new, consensus election commissioner, may hold the key.
Monday, June 4, 2012
Troubleshooting in Balochistan Prime Minister (PM) Yousaf Raza Gilani and COAS General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani are in Balochistan on a two day visit, ostensibly as a ‘troubleshooting’ trip. On arrival in Quetta on Sunday, the PM was ‘greeted’ by another sectarian attack in the city, which killed four Shia Hazaras and one policeman, while another policeman was injured. The incident is a very good reflection of the state of affairs in Quetta, let alone the rest of the province. There are two separate issues to be tackled. One, the sectarian mayhem unleashed by the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi against the Shia Hazara community; two, the ongoing Baloch nationalist armed resistance. On the former, it is amazing that despite the plethora of Hazara killings in recent days, no effective measures have been taken to quell the mischief of the terrorist fanatics. Neither has the Hazara community been extended any security, nor has a single sectarian murderer been arrested. It is ironic, therefore, for the PM to ‘order’ the Balochistan government to improve law and order. This too, like so many other exhortations before it (including from the Supreme Court) is likely to disappear into thin air once the PM returns. On the Baloch nationalist armed struggle, the PM has persisted with his blinkered approach to the problem. This approach relies almost exclusively on offering jobs and educational opportunities to the youth of the province, in the hope that this would wean them away from contemplating translating the widespread sympathies of the youth in Balochistan for the insurgents into active participation in resistance activities. The approach is a continuation of the ‘philosophy’ underlying the Aaghaaz-e-Haqooq-e-Balochistan package, which sees the problems of the province in terms almost exclusively of economic underdevelopment and lack of opportunities. While no one can quibble with the good intent behind the package and its successor steps, the whole thrust misses the point. Unless and until the alienated leaders and forces in the mountains or in exile are approached through appropriate intermediaries, and a purely political problem solved through political means and a negotiated settlement (something even the COAS has advocated in the recent high powered meeting on Balochistan in Islamabad), eschewing in the process the resort to military force and the notorious ‘kill and dump’ policy, no amount of jobs or educational opportunities will in and by themselves bring peace and reconciliation to the troubled province. The PM has stated in Quetta that the government intends to talk to the angry Baloch leaders, but he neither explained how this desirable move would come about, nor is there so far any sign that the government has taken any initiative in this regard. It thus remains just talk so far. Governments tend to say only what is favourable to them in situations like the one that confronts Balochistan, and skip the bitter truths. This can only be likened to the parable of the ostrich with his head in the sand. The PM claims that provincial autonomy (through the 18th Amendment) and the ownership of the Baloch people over their resources are settled issues. With due respect, this is stretching the truth to breaking point. And that too at a time when Baloch leaders like Brahmdagh Bugti are saying the time for conferences and talks on Balochistan’s future has come and gone. In these circumstances the tired refrain that all is well in the best of all possible worlds can only act as salt sprinkled on the Baloch people’s wounds. Such salt was liberally used by the IG Frontier Corps the other day when he, in time honoured fashion, pointed the accusatory finger at the ubiquitous ‘foreign hand’ in Balochistan. The PM has now taken up that refrain and characterised it as foreign powers eyeing the resources of the province. Those old enough to have lived through the debacle of 1971 will recall how the genuine grievances of the people of East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) were either ignored or painted as ‘foreign inspired’, with the tragic consequences that flowed from that state of denial. Although the two situations are not exactly alike, Balochistan’s strategic location and potential wealth can tempt some great powers. By adopting a strategy of on the one hand ‘decapitating’ the Baloch intelligentsia through a slow genocide, and on the other offering the sops of jobs and educational opportunities, the government is persuading no one that it has a firm grip on the situation, or even a reasonable chance of success.
Sunday, June 3, 2012
Budget FY 2013 The fact that an elected government is presenting its fifth budget (implying it has survived almost a full term) is being remarked upon in diverse circles and celebrated in some. However, the celebrations cannot but be mooted when the state of the economy and by extrapolation the state of the citizen is so precarious and painful. The Budget FY 2013 presented by Federal Finance Minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, whatever its merits or demerits, received short shrift at the hands of a rowdy and violent set of MNAs from the opposition benches, led first and foremost by the PML-N. Heckling and walkouts may be permitted parliamentary forms of protest, but surely fisticuffs are beyond the pale. The scenes of mayhem from the floor of the house were enough to make any self-respecting Pakistani hang his/her head in shame. Mr Shaikh struggled through his budget speech nevertheless, but reasoned debate was replaced by the opposition with yahoo behaviour. It is worth noting that these opposition parliamentarians, by their example, are not just endorsing yahoo behaviour that is increasingly characteristic of our society, but positively encouraging it. If parliamentarians replace the weapon of language and reason with the ‘language’ of violence and aggression, how can we expect civilised norms from the rest of society? Such ‘role models’ we can very well do without. And what have they wrought in the account of the dignity and respect for parliament itself? Opposition to government policies, decisions and actions cannot transgress the laid down and universally respected norms of parliamentary behaviour. Nawaz Sharif should rein in his ‘hawks’ in the interests of continuity of the democratic process. The total outlay for this year’s budget is Rs 2.96 trillion (up 0.6 percent from Rs 2.94 trillion in FY 2012). The scepticism of the critics about overstated receipts and understated expenditures notwithstanding, gross federal revenues are estimated at Rs 3.234 trillion (up 18.3 percent on FY 2012), which, after enhanced transfers to provinces under the current NFC Award of Rs. 1.459 trillion (up 21.3 percent), leave net federal revenues of Rs 1.775 trillion (up 16.1 percent). That projects a net budget deficit (after deducting a provincial surplus of Rs 0.080 trillion) of Rs 1.105 trillion, representing 4.7 percent of GDP (5.5 percent in FY 2012 plus 1.9 percent consolidation of debt equals 7.4 percent). Sceptics doubt that the government’s past practice and avowed intent to meet the deficit through borrowing will confine it to this relatively acceptable level through the next fiscal year. The major areas of outlay interest, traditionally, are debt servicing (the lion’s share as usual for many years now of Rs 1.141 trillion or 35 percent), defence (Rs 545 billion or 17 percent, to which if Rs 98 billion on account of military pensions camouflaged as civilian expenditures are added, the real figure is Rs 643 billion), and development (Rs 873 billion, of which the PSDP comprises Rs 360 billion, up from last year’s Rs 300 billion). Being an election year, the government has striven hard not to impose any new taxes. It has within the straitened finances of the government attempted to give relief to vulnerable groups, rationalise taxation and duties to encourage businesses, and endorsed a continuation of targeted subsidies for the marginalised in society. Hence, for example, government servants’ pay and pensions have been increased by 20 percent, the government’s flagship Benazir Income Support Programme receives Rs 70 billion (Rs 50 billion last year), concessionary food and other necessities will be provided through the Utility Stores, which are being expanded, and internship and technical training regimes for 100,000 educated unemployed youth will be instituted. The textiles industry receives allocated support in the presence of a major drop in international cotton prices, the pharmaceuticals sector gets a 5 percent reduction of tariffs on 95 raw materials in recognition of its good performance, and subsidies will swallow up Rs 209 billion (of which Rs 135 billion will go to the power sector, representing about 50 percent of the circular debt). Hafeez Shaikh with a rhetorical flourish towards the end of his budget speech asserted that the government will provide as much money as required in order to overcome electricity load shedding, without shedding any light on where these ‘magic’ funds will come from. Sales Tax (ST) has been rationalised at a uniform rate of 16 percent across the board, and federal excise duty abolished on a number of goods, with the promise that this levy will be phased out. The income tax threshold has been increased from Rs 350,000 to 400,000, which will help the salaried class in particular, albeit marginally. Capital Gains Tax has been imposed on sale of real estate. The withholding tax threshold on cash withdrawals from banks has been raised from Rs 25,000 to 50,000 per day. Tax to GDP ratio stood at 9.6 percent in FY 2012, which the government hopes will rise through better enforcement and documentation of the economy measures to 10.3 percent this year. Despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that there are only three million taxpayers in the country, and only 100,000 registered entities under ST, the government has offered relief in the form of reducing the tax slabs to just five (promising thereby a relief of Rs 8 billion to taxpayers), reduction of minimum turnover tax from 1 percent to 0.5 percent, and a declared intent to reduce the presumptive tax regime if not phase it out altogether. As the above analysis shows, the budget has tried hard within the financial constraints to balance straitened finances against the political need to offer relief to whatever extent possible in an election year. As promised by the government, no new taxes have been imposed; tax amnesties and concessions are on offer. Sceptics wonder if this budget will be overtaken by political events during this fiscal year. On that, comment is reserved until further political developments.
Hosni Mubarak’s day in court Former Egyptian strongman Hosni Mubarak has been handed down a life sentence along with his former interior minister Habib al-Adly for the killing of 225 protestors and wounding more than 1,800 during the movement for his ouster in January 2011. Six co-accused security commanders were acquitted for lack of evidence. The verdict immediately drew thousands of protestors into the streets. Some of them demanded Mubarak’s execution, others feared weaknesses in the case as reflected finally in the verdict could let Mubarak off on appeal. The verdict comes at an especially fraught time for Egypt, just two weeks before a crucial run-off election for president, in which the Egyptian voters have been left with a Hobson’s choice between the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate Muhammad Mursi, who came in first in the first round, and second placed former prime minister under Mubarak, Ahmed Shafiq. Critics of the verdict argue that it proves the old order is still in place. The military, which has been in power since the coup of 1952, is still calling the shots. Entrenched in power for decades, the military has acquired a military-industrial-business complex that it will not surrender easily. Apart from fears of the sentence being overturned on appeal, critics also question why the former president has not been held accountable for the years of repression against dissidents, the police state, and corruption. Mubarak’s two sons have been acquitted of corruption charges because of the statute of limitations and Mubarak himself has been acquitted in one corruption case because of lack of evidence. The former president has a great deal to answer for during the 30 years he was in absolute power, courtesy the army and in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination. The military courts that tried and sentenced thousands of political opponents of the regime in the 1980s and 1990s, the ‘renditions’ in collaboration with US President Bush in the war on terror, the systematic use of torture and rape as instruments for breaking the will of opponents, all these crimes have been left on the shelf and the case against him has been confined to the repression of the ‘Tahrir Square’ protestors. That does not necessarily mean that none of this will come out in the wash eventually. After the political transition to an elected president (most likely to be the front runner from the Muslim Brotherhood), who knows what other accountability processes may kick in? At this point, it may be salutary to revisit the Arab Spring, on which many hopes resided for a new state and society to emerge from the sacrifices of citizens in removing the dictator. It would not be out of place to argue that the ‘Spring’ was overhyped and expectations as to its outcome overly optimistic. In the flush of victory against Mubarak, this heightened sense of expectation, especially given the mood on the street, was understandable. However, what cooler minds were arguing even then was that the entrenched military would not be easy to displace and in fact Mubarak would be sacrificed by it precisely in order to keep its grip on power. As to the movement itself, the liberals and left were inherently coming to political agitation spontaneously and without the backing of a party organisation, unlike the battle hardened Muslim Brotherhood. The first attempts to give the disparate forces of the left-liberals a political identity resulted in splits, reflected also in the first round of the presidential election. It is to be noted that in spite of the left-liberal vote being spilt amongst various candidates, a socialist, Hamdeen Sabahi, still managed to come third. The highly organised and disciplined Muslim Brotherhood, veteran of decades of struggle, open and underground, would always have been a formidable foe, more so in the face of a scattered and divided rival camp of the real movers of the revolution. Does Mubarak’s day in court mean the day of the dictator is over? Conceptually, yes, history has delivered its verdict. However, in real terms and on the ground, the old adage that “He may be a b*****d, but at least he’s our b*****d” still informs the contradictory stances of the great powers, paramount amongst them the US. Only a real people’s revolution that sweeps away the old order completely can satisfy the inherent aspirations of the Arab Spring and masses. Until then, the struggle for a just democratic society continues, with its twists and turns, triumphs and disappointments.
Friday, June 1, 2012
State of the economy The Economic Survey 2012 tries to project the good news (what little there is of that) regarding the economy, despite the fact that even Federal Finance Minister Dr Abdul Hafeez Shaikh admits that the government failed to meet its targets almost across the board. Nevertheless, the positive spin he tried to impart to the figures in his press conference on Thursday while presenting the Survey rotated around the argument that in the middle of a global meltdown, low investment (domestic and foreign), natural calamities such as floods for two years running, and the regional (not to mention the domestic) security situation, the economy had performed. GDP grew by 3.7 percent (3.0 percent in 2011), the highest in three years despite having missed the target of 4.0 percent. The Survey claims inflation according to the Consumer Price Index (CPI) was contained to 10.8 percent (13.8 percent in 2011), Wholesale Price Index to 11.2 percent (21 percent last year), and the Sensitive Price Index to 8.5 percent (18 percent last year). This, according to government sources, will make the 12 months target of containing CPI inflation at 12 percent achievable (the Survey covers 10 months of the current fiscal year). Whether citizens are likely to have much faith in these figures, given empirical experience of rising prices, is a moot point. Tax collection rose an unprecedented 25 percent, July-April yielding Rs 1,490 billion (Rs 1,250 billion in 2011), with government confident it will rise another 25 percent next year. The Survey claims government slashed its expenditure by 10 percent, a claim likely to be met with scepticism when the profligate ways of politicians and the ‘borrow and spend’ approach of the government are kept in mind. Government borrowed Rs 2,486 billion (Rs 2,527 billion 2011) through T-bills and PIBs and Rs 1,003 billion from the banking sector. The State Bank Governor the other day has warned of the crowding out of private sector borrowing because of the government’s demands on credit, the implications for investment and the economy being obvious. Most government borrowing is to address the fiscal, trade, current account and balance of payments deficits, all of which have been ballooning (the fiscal deficit has already surpassed the target of 4.0 percent of GDP even without including the power sector expenditures; if these and consolidation of debt are added, the fiscal deficit is an alarming 6.85 percent). Public debt has risen above Rs 12 trillion, with more than Rs 5 trillion being external debt. This represents 58.2 percent of GDP (55.5 percent 2011), which is knocking at the prudent ceiling of 60 percent. Needless to say, an economic paradigm that relies on borrowing, internal and external, to stay afloat is hocking the future of coming generations. The biggest (admitted by Hafeez Shaikh) failure of this government has been in tackling the energy crunch, particularly electricity. Four years of fiddling around with grandiose announcements of plans to overcome load shedding, which has crippled the economy and the life of citizens, have left citizens and business groups angry to the point where they are resorting increasingly to violence against the electricity providers. In an election year, this spells a great deal of political trouble for the incumbents. Manipulation of oil prices to use this as a cash source has been a classic case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face, the revenue generating ‘cash cow’ impacting on inflation across the board. Rising international prices are pounced upon to justify huge increases, falls in international prices (as at present) only evoke token decreases, if any. What government gains in revenue from oil prices, it loses in inflation, economic cost of business rising, etc. Fiscal 2012, if truth be told, has been a bad year. While most targets were missed (moderately encouraging news from agriculture, manufacturing and construction sectors notwithstanding), the key challenges remain exactly where they were. Energy, security, law and order, enabling business environment, all familiar refrains, without any serious quest to address them in sight. Even the most incorrigible optimist would cringe.