Thursday, March 28, 2013
SC’s refusal on Musharraf Dr Mubashir Hassan’s plea to seeking the disqualification of General (retd) Pervez Musharraf from participating as a candidate in the elections under Articles 62 and 63 has not been entertained by the Supreme Court (SC). The petitioner’s argument is that Musharraf had violated the constitution by imposing an emergency on November 3, 2007 and suspending the constitution. The petitioner’s counsel, A K Dogar, cited the July 31, 2009 verdict of the SC to argue that the constitution could not be held in abeyance at the will and whim of a COAS. This, according to Dogar, was subversion of the constitution and constituted high treason. There existed a declaration against Musharraf in the SC’s judgement, he went on, and thereby he stands convicted. A raft of other petitions are flowing into the SC against the former dictator, ranging from the Lahore High Court Bar Association’s plea for a treason case to two petitions asking for his name to be put on the exit control list. This is quite apart from the cases against Musharraf on the Akbar Bugti and Benazir Bhutto assassinations and the Laal Masjid operation. The SC’s three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry held, however, that the SC was not the appropriate forum for such a plea and the petitioner should address the election commission’s returning officers regarding the appropriateness or otherwise of the candidature of Musharraf. It must be noted that the court has not as yet addressed the treason charge. It is interesting to ask the question that looms like an elephant in the room. Nobody is inclined to charge Musharraf with the crime of carrying out a military coup in 1999 that overthrew the elected government of Nawaz Sharif. The latter has not approached the SC on this burning but forgotten issue, nor have the petitions discussed above. Why is this? Logically, that coup was the fountainhead of all that followed, including the imposition of emergency in 2007. Could it be that even Musharraf’s sworn enemies are reluctant to stir a pot that might end up raising embarrassing questions about the SC itself? After all, the SC endorsed the coup, went so far as to give Musharraf a three-year stint as Chief Executive, and even bestowed its generous largesse on him by allowing him to amend the constitution. The present Honourable Chief Justice too came to his office in 2005 under Musharraf’s dispensation. Any delving into these prickly events therefore has the potential of embarrassing questions being raised about the conduct of the SC and its relationship with the coup maker in the past. Admittedly, the SC has since vowed to forget the controversial track record of the judiciary in the past vis-à-vis military coups and dictators, but does this not conveniently brush the issue under the carpet? Can the SC find the moral strength to reverse those decisions so as to prospectively block for all time to come the path of future Bonapartes? Of course that would imply going against the most powerful institution of state, the military, which has thrown its weight behind Musharraf’s safe return (through protective bail) and urged the government to provide him foolproof security. Difficult as it is, the expectation from the judiciary is that it would grasp this nettle to lay the ghost of coups and coup makers to rest permanently. Meanwhile Musharraf is waxing eloquent in his defence. He says in a press conference the other day that he has not returned under any deal (perhaps because he himself was a deal-maker while in power), challenges his opponents to do whatever they can against him since he is not afraid, brushes aside al fears of assassination, etc. He also justifies the Laaal Masjid operation and Kargil, denies responsibility for Bugti’s killing, and looks to the MQM for a seat or two. Pakistan’s nascent democracy, faced with the challenge of conducting a peaceful democratic transition from one elected government to the next also arguably faces, but is not so far addressing, the sordid past of military coups in our history, and has yet to find the courage to put those responsible in the dock of history and the law.
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
The Punjab caretaker CM The parliamentary committee comprising the outgoing PML-N government and the opposition consisting of the PPP and PML-Q finally, after lengthy deliberations, agreed on Najam Sethi as the caretaker Chief Minister (CM) of Punjab. Reports say the PML-N’s hand was forced to accept Sethi despite him being a PPP nominee because they chose their own nominees unwisely without proper homework and then were confronted with the possibility that the matter would end up with the election commission, which may in any case find Sethi the least objectionable candidate, in the process robbing the PML-N of the mantle of mature consensual politics. About the PPP, it is being speculated that President Asif Ali Zardari played his cards cleverly, choosing nominees that ostensibly were distant from the PPP. Whether this assertion stands up to scrutiny, however, is another matter. Outgoing PML-N Law Minister Rana Sanaullah, one of the members of the parliamentary committee, while announcing the decision, tried to put a brave face on it by saying the decision was in the greater interest of the nation and province, and that they had confidence in Sethi and hoped he would be as impartial as caretaker CM as he was in his political analysis. Both parties, the PPP and the PML-N, seem to be suffering from memory loss. Najam Sethi started life as a revolutionary Marxist and joined the Baloch resistance against Zuklfikar Ali Bhutto’s military campaign in that troubled province in the 1970s. Arrested, tortured and imprisoned in 1975, he was finally released from Hyderabad Jail where he and many others were incarcerated in the Hyderabad Conspiracy Case a few months before the case was finally withdrawn by the General Ziaul Haq regime. He returned to his native Lahore, set up a publishing house and later an English weekly that continues to date. In 1999, he was arrested and mistreated by Nawaz Sharif’s second government on charges of treason related to a speech he gave in New Delhi, which the then Pakistani High Commissioner Ashraf Qazi (lately of the bin Laden raid commission fame) presented to the government as anti-Pakistan. After his release in 2000, Sethi had to undergo heart surgery because of the physical and health damage incurred during this incarceration. In 2002, he became the founder-editor of this newspaper and remained at its helm until 2009, when he fell out with its publisher the late Governor Salmaan Taseer on, amongst other things, working for another media house while being editor of Daily Times. Currently, he was hosting a talk show on a private TV channel until his appointment as caretaker CM, for which he has taken oath yesterday. Sethi’s statements after taking oath and comments in the media converge on the most important task before him: ensuring far, free, transparent elections are held in Punjab, arguably the real battlefield of the coming polls. Consistency has not been one of Sethi’s strong points, his pendulum swings between the PPP and PML-N, depending which party was in power, being the only constant. That, however, has not stopped his march to the caretaker CM’s office now. However, if there is any consistency in Sethi’s long journey from a committed Marxist in his youth to becoming a successful part of the political culture that has overtaken the polity over many years, it is his ability to land caretaker jobs. In 1996-7, after then President Farooq Leghari booted out his own PPP’s government under Benazir Bhutto, Sethi was appointed federal caretaker minister for accountability. In that role, some assert, he prepared the grounds for the later cases Nawaz Sharif’s second government instituted through Saifur Rehman’s Ehtesab Bureau against Benazir and Asif Zardari. None of this has stood in the way of Sethi’s climb to one pinnacle after the other. Now the expectation is that he will rise to the challenge and prove all his critics wrong by fulfilling the heavy responsibility on his shoulders to ensure a credible election in the province under most contention in these polls.
Tuesday, March 26, 2013
Public versus vested interest An unfortunate aspect of our polity as it has evolved over the years is the dominance of the ‘philosophy’ that public office is to be obtained purely for the purpose of private gain. Thus the concept of public service has been abandoned. Across the board, the suspicion of all parties pursuing this practice is not without weight. Particularly in the dying moments of an outgoing government, there is a flurry of activity in evidence to leave behind facts on the ground in the form of decisions intended to favour favourites and privilege the already privileged. Something along these lines seems to have occurred according to a story published in Daily Times yesterday. The story speaks of a number of decisions taken amidst the dying embers of the outgoing PPP-led government by the short-lived Finance Minister Salim Mandviwalla, who replaced Hafeez Sheikh. The story says that while the jury is still out on the performance of Dr Hafeez Sheikh as the Finance Minister, his successor managed to get decisions through in a hurry (time was short after all) that had been either rejected earlier or lay pending because of reservations about their impact. The Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources pushed through several dubious decisions for which the fertilizer industry, oil refineries, natural gas industry and oil marketing companies had been lobbying for years. The first decision related to the supply of gas to fertilizer factories in direct violation of the Gas Allocation Policy of the ECC. This gas has been diverted from power generation, which is arguably the number one problem for the economy. This decision was rushed through despite the objections of the Planning Commission on, amongst other grounds, the fact that the cost of power generation from oil is three times higher than from gas. Another decision relates to the oil refineries and marketing companies. The approval of Inland Freight Marginalisation (IFEM) for a coastal refinery, which had been twice turned down by both the ECC and the Ministry of Petroleum and Natural Resources itself, was done over the objections of OGRA and the Planning Commission. Another decision concerned deemed duty, which originally was intended as an incentive for oil refineries to carry out modernisation. Except one, none of the refineries did, but nevertheless got the benefit of deemed duty from the outgoing government. Last but not least, oil dealers’ margin was increased at the cost of the consumer without any apparent rhyme or reason. These examples, while causing concern, are perhaps only the tip of the iceberg. Government decisions favouring favourite vested interests have become a routine fact of life in Pakistan’s polity. What lends the above examples added resonance is the timing. An outgoing government uses the last possible moments of its tenure to take decisions that favour some interest at the expense of the public interest. If the petition moved in the Supreme Court by Dr Mubashir Hassan regarding last minute appointments, postings, transfers, regularisation of contract employees, development funds’ allocations to make electoral gains by the incumbents is any guide, the iceberg of this form of corruption is titanic. Over time, the country and society at large have seen the exponential growth of a culture of throwing principles, ethics, integrity out the window and replacing them with the Machiavellian approach of achieving personal ambition and aggrandizement without scruples or hesitation. While democracy is in the process of being consolidated, the thoughtful amongst us also need to reflect on the downward spiral we are caught in in terms of becoming a lawless and unprincipled society, where success has many fathers, and ‘failure’ (to achieve, get somewhere, be someone) is an orphan. A sad statement on our collective state and one that needs the most determined effort by those who see this as more destructive of state and society than any other threat it faces to start a public consciousness campaign for the elimination of this spreading evil that has us in its octopus-like grip.
Monday, March 25, 2013
A caretaker prime minister at last Tortuous though it may have been, there is room for satisfaction in the fact that at the end of the day, the country has a caretaker prime minister. When the procedure as laid down in the constitution failed to achieve agreement on a consensus caretaker prime minister between the outgoing prime minister and the leader of the opposition, and then the parliamentary committee set up with equal representation of the treasury and opposition benches, the task fell to the election commission, which has after due deliberations, delivered a majority decision in favour of Justice (retd) Mir Hazar Khan Khoso from Balochistan. The election commission chief, Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim revealed to the media the decision and also underlined the fact that it was taken by a 4-1 majority, the member from Punjab, Justice (retd) Riaz Kiyani, dissenting and casting his vote for Justice (retd) Nasir Aslam Zahid, the PML-N’s nominee. The election commission had been trying for a consensus, but when it became clear that Justice (retd) Kiyani was sticking to his guns, the committee voted by a majority in favour of Justice (retd) Khoso. Justice (retd) Khoso has since taken oath of office from President Asif Ali Zardari. He had an interaction with media on Sunday in which he committed as his topmost priority the holding of free, fair and transparent elections and facilitating the election commission in carrying out this task. He also sought to put all conspiracy theories and speculations to rest by asserting that the caretaker setup would not continue a day beyond its tenure, and if it did, he would go home. He promised to have good relations with all political parties and induct a small cabinet of 12-15 members to handle the country’s affairs in the interim until the elections. Given his Baloch background, Justice (retd) Khoso was asked about the possibility of his playing a role in calming things down in troubled Balochistan and ensuring the elections were held in a congenial atmosphere in that province. While the caretaker prime minister promised to do his best to bring this about, scepticism exists whether the complex insurgency-hit situation in Balochistan can yield to normality without a political dialogue and settlement with the estranged Baloch leaders and people. In the same context, Justice (retd) Khoso said that while law and order was the responsibility of the provinces, his administration would help and facilitate them in ensuring a conducive and peaceful atmosphere for the upcoming polls. From the president down, most political parties across the divide have welcomed the appointment of Justice (retd) Khoso as the caretaker prime minister, despite continuing disquiet over the inability of the politicians to grab the historic opportunity they were presented with. One should nevertheless be grateful for small mercies that the three-layered process laid down in the constitution finally provided the desired end result. The only reservations as such over Justice (retd) Khoso’s appointment have been voiced by PTI and JI, but they lack any solid grounds for their objections. Even the PML-N, whose nominee/s did not win out, has accepted the election commission’s decision with good grace. Pakistan has certainly turned a corner from the past when caretaker prime ministers were appointed five times before this through a non-transparent, behind closed doors process, with objections from one side or the other almost an inevitable fallout. The broad acceptance, if not near-consensus on the caretaker prime minister’s appointment is a sign of the maturing of the democratic process in the country. However, as he has promised to do, the caretaker prime minister must so conduct himself as to allay any lingering objections to his appointment or suspicions that he is the PPP’s nominee. As the constitution envisages, the caretaker prime minister, no matter who may have nominated him, once he enters office, must show impartiality if the goal of a free, fair, transparent, credible election is to be achieved.
Sunday, March 24, 2013
Imran Khan’s rally The Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf’s (PTI’s) rally at Minar-e-Pakistan on March 23 was huge, with the vast majority comprising youth and women, the main support of the party. While the rally was well organised and managed, all the speakers who came before Imran Khan droned on and on, full of sound and fury, signifying little or nothing. Whether this annoyed the gods or not, a storm and heavy rain cut short Imran Khan’s speech and did not allow him to announce his party’s manifesto or complete the oath taking of the party’s newly elected office bearers. Nevertheless the turnout and enthusiasm on display amongst the crowd will strengthen Imran Khan and the PTI’s claim to have emerged as the third alternative to the PPP and PML-N. In the time available to him before the deluge, Imran Khan vowed to build a ‘New Pakistan’ and made six promises. He pledged to always remain honest, wage jihad against oppression, keep his assets inside the country, not misuse power if elected, protect the taxpayers’ money, and protect the rights of overseas Pakistanis. He said he would not indulge in false promises like raising the minimum wage to Rs 18,000 (a dig at the PPP and PML-N), and would commit only what he was able to deliver. He went on to assert that if brought to power, he would convert the Governor’s House into a public library and sports ground. He pledged that his party workers and newly elected office bearers would have the right to remove him as chairman of PTI if they found him dishonest or guilty of dishonouring his promises. Imran Khan has been trying to present his PTI as a different kind of party from our traditional mainstream. To the extent that the PTI has recently held intra-party elections despite the risks (and some friction) involved, certainly sets PTI apart from the dynastic political culture of most of our political parties. However, some objective realities have to be faced regardless. The support to the PTI from youth and women reflects more the disillusionment with and reaction against the traditional parties than something substantially different and positive. The cries of ‘change’ that ring through every public event the PTI mounts do not, despite ‘revolutionary’ pretensions, boil down to more than a change of faces rather than the system, which the PTI claims it can manage better, including the elimination of corruption. Second, big rallies do not necessarily an election victory make. Constituency politics, revolving around in the rural areas the influence of large landowners, clan and family ties, and in the urban areas interest groups, determine electoral fortunes. The PTI’s outreach in the rural areas is weak to non-existent, while it is in the urban areas its real constituency of the middle class youth and women reside. When the crunch comes on election day, therefore, it remains to be seen whether the ‘tsunami’ Imran has been boasting of is wishful thinking or real. On a rough guess, the best estimate for the PTI is from a low of 15-20 national seats to an optimistic 30-40. This will not provide Imran with the ability to make a government. If it gives him the possibility of holding the balance of power in what will once again probably be a hung parliament, his role may be diminished by his intransigence so far to cooperating, let alone allying with, any other party. In that sense, while the PTI may have seen benefits in its solo flight to keep itself free of the taint of being sullied by association with ‘corrupt’ parties, it may cost the party after the elections if its role remains marginalised in the new parliament.
Saturday, March 23, 2013
Politicians miss the bus While Pakistan Day came and went yesterday with all eyes fixed on a few significant developments, there was a sense of disappointment that the mainstream political parties had failed to reach agreement on a caretaker prime minister. The eight-member parliamentary committee charged by the constitution with fulfilling this responsibility, with equal representation of the outgoing government coalition and the opposition, signally fell out on the rock of intransigent insistence on their own candidates. It is a matter of profound regret that the politicians chose their respective candidates unwisely, without taking into consideration the other side’s view, and then failed to show the necessary maturity and flexibility to arrive at a consensus. Thereby a great historic opportunity to establish a precedent that would have strengthened the democratic forces was unfortunately lost to partisan considerations. By the time these lines appear in print, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) will be entering the last day for deciding the matter, having failed also to reach agreement on Saturday, the first of the two days at tts disposal to apply closure. These developments have further accentuated the climate of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming elections. The hope is that the ECP will complete the task and allow the country to breathe a sigh of relief that the process continues to move forward despite fits and starts. The ECP has in the meantime announced the election schedule for the May 11 elections. It has fixed six days from March 24 to 29 for filing of nomination papers. Scrutiny of these will be carried out from March 30 to April 5. Defaulters of even small amounts of any state-run department will be given short shrift. Candidates can file appeals against the decision of a returning officer by April 9. April 16 will be the last date for decisions on the appeals by election tribunals, whereas the candidates can withdraw their nomination papers by April 17. Final lists of candidates will be published by April 18. While this finalisation of the schedule is welcome, all eyes will be on the ECP’s decision regarding the caretaker prime minister today. As though the breakdown between the politicians at the Centre on the question of the caretaker setup was not bad enough, outgoing Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has delivered himself of a broadside against the nominees of the PPP for caretaker chief minister Punjab. Three provinces, Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have agreed the caretaker chief ministers, but something similar to what is happening in the Centre seems to be at work in Punjab. The hardline lobby in the PML-N, led by outgoing Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar and which arguably includes Shahbaz Sharif, seems bent on sabotaging any effort to arrive at a consensus on the caretaker setup in the Centre and in Punjab. Chaudhry Nisar’s press conferences before and during the sessions of the parliamentary committee clearly indicated that no agreement was in the offing, and so it turned out. It appeared as though the (changed) members of the PML-N on the parliamentary committee had no mandate to decide anything and that their party leadership (particularly Chaudhry Nisar) effectively scuttled what would have been a historic development. Meanwhile eyes also turned yesterday to the PTI’s massive rally at Minar-e-Pakistan in Lahore (more on that some other time) and Pervez Musharraf’s expected return to the country (finally) via Karachi after obtaining protective bail from the Sindh High Court against arrest on arrival in the Nawab Akbar Bugti and Benazir Bhutto assassination cases. The electoral fray is heating up, and all men of goodwill will hope that the process of holding the elections goes ahead as smoothly as possible and with the minimum violence from various non-state actors.
Friday, March 22, 2013
Jalozai camp attack A timer-detonated car bomb carrying up to 35 kilograms of explosives and mortar bombs went off in the largest Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) camp in the country at Jalozai, killing at least 15 people, including three women and two children, when the IDPs were lined up to receive rations and register new arrivals. Forty one persons were wounded, of whom four are reportedly in critical condition. The force of the blast can be estimated from the two-foot crater carved out by the bomb and the fact that the engine of the Suzuki vehicle used was flung 50 feet away. Clearly, the bombers’ intent was to inflict maximum casualties on the defenceless IDPs. Tens of thousands of IDPs reside in Jalozai, having fled from Akakhel, Bara and the Khyber Agency. The last in particular has been the scene lately of intense fighting between the military on an offensive to clear out the Tirah valley of the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and its ally the Lashkar-e-Islam (LeI), which are also being confronted by the pro-government Ansar-ul-Islam (AuI) militia. The strategic significance of the Tirah valley, a redoubt of many rebel movements in the past, lies in the fact that it is less a valley and more a warren of ravines and caves that offer cover and a base to the TTP and its affiliates. It is also important as a conduit linking Khyber Agency to the neighbouring Orakzai Agency and Afghanistan. The Tirah valley provides access to the settled areas beyond FATA and even threatens Peshawar. It should not come as a surprise therefore that the TTP and the LeI are fiercely contesting the military and AuI’s efforts to clear the area of terrorists. The military’s strategy appears to be based on an ‘encircle and destroy’ strategy, which has the advantage over previous efforts of attempting to cut off the escape routes of the terrorists so they cannot slip through the net, a tactic they have employed in the past and which the forbidding terrain facilitates. While there has been no claim of responsibility so far, the TTP has denied it is involved. Police authorities suspect the LeI may be behind the carnage of innocents. Official reports say the authorities in the camp have been receiving threats for quite some time against the registration of new IDPs in the camp, more and more people being forced to flee their hearths and homes because of the fighting in their area. Four suspects are said to be under interrogation. The TTP and allies have attempted to take pressure of late against them in the Tirah valley by carrying out attacks in Peshawar and the settled areas. This is the pattern of the attacks on Bashir Bilour (in which he was killed), Ameer Haider Hoti (which he survived), the Khyber Agency Political Agent’s office, and last but not least, the Judicial Complex in Peshawar. While the military’s campaign is intended first and foremost to cleanse the strategically important area of the malign presence of the terrorists, it is also aimed at securing Peshawar and the settled areas environs in the light of the upcoming elections. Fears are being expressed across the board that the terrorists have launched a concerted campaign of bloody violence in order to sabotage the elections, with the TTP openly threatening people who may be inclined to attend the rallies of the mainstream parties opposed to the terrorists, such as the PPP, ANP, MQM, etc. The real test, and victory over the dark forces represented by the terrorists lies in ensuring the elections go through, ensuring to the extent possible that violence, if not eliminated, is kept to the minimum possible.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
Contempt again A Supreme Court (SC) three-member bench headed by Chief Justice (CJ) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has decided to indict the NAB Chairman, Admiral (retd) Fasih Bokhari, for contempt of court on April 2. The charge relates to the letter the NAB Chairman wrote to the president, in which he alleged that the SC was unnecessarily pressurising NAB investigators in high profile cases such as the Rental Power case. The bench has in its wisdom chosen to ignore the objections of the alleged contemnor regarding the same bench hearing the contempt charge as had originally framed it. Further, the Admiral has openly accused the court, and especially the CJ, of being predisposed against him, and that therefore he stands condemned even before the case is heard. The NAB Chairman has also invoked the CJ's son Arsalan Iftikhar’s case, in which the Admiral says he was accused of all sorts of things by Arsalan. Given the relationship of Arsalan with the CJ, the Admiral continued, it would be in the fitness of things if the CJ were to recuse himself. The bench has seen fit to override all these objections on the grounds that it was not just the CJ but the entire court that the Admiral committed contempt against, and that the CJ was bound to sit on important cases. While the honourable court has the power and authority to reject any accused’s objections to a particular bench or a particular judge, it may perhaps have been in the fitness of things if either another bench had been formed so that that objection could be dealt with, and for the CJ to recuse himself since both the bench and the CJ had no confidence expressed in them by the alleged contemnor. Justice after all should not only be done, but be seen to be done. Admittedly, the symbol of justice, a lady bearing the scales of justice, is blindfolded. This however implies that justice is blind to all considerations except what the law lays down, not blind per se. In the Arsalan Iftikhar case, the CJ unfortunately did not at first realise the sensitivity surrounding his insistence on sitting on the bench hearing the case, an unprecedented bending of judicial precedents. It was only after a day or so that perhaps the honourable CJ realised the inappropriateness of that decision and eventually recused himself. It is of course a separate matter that the Arsalan Iftikhar-Malik Riaz case has disappeared from view and nothing is known of its eventual outcome. With the greatest respect to the superior judiciary in general and the SC in particular, we have argued innumerable times in this space that the respect and dignity of the judiciary also lies in its own hands. Nothing therefore should be said or done that may bring that respect and dignity into question. Unfortunately, the perception has grown since the restoration of the superior judiciary in 2009 that the judiciary in general, and the SC in particular, have become hyperactive. This has led to friction regarding the boundaries defining the separation of powers in our constitutional construct between the legislature, executive and judiciary. Excessive use of suo motu and contempt powers, far from enhancing the stature of the judiciary, have tended to drag it into unsavoury controversy. The hyperactivism of the judiciary has made the functioning of other state institutions, particularly the executive and governments, that much more difficult in a time when the country is faced with innumerable and serious problems. While it is undeniably the duty of the judiciary to dispense justice, governing has to be left within the purview of the executive if the system is to function and not suffer paralysis. Parliament too has had its complaints against what has been seen as an increasingly overweening judiciary. Then there is the accusation that the SC’s priority has tended to weigh against the PPP and its leaders more and adopted a relatively ‘softly, softly’ approach to the PML-N. Whether there is any truth in this or not, the mere perception is damaging to the esteemed institution of the judiciary. ‘Pick and choose justice’, compounded by using up the judiciary’s precious time on relatively fresh cases, ignoring the mountain of backlog that clogs the veins of the judicial system, is seen in some quarters as weakening the ends of justice. It is sad to ruminate that the goodwill and prestige the judiciary enjoyed after its restoration in 2009 has been eroded by subsequent developments. That is why the time-honoured principle of judicial restraint is still the best course to return to even at this late stage.
Wednesday, March 20, 2013
Inching forward The process of holding general elections is inching forward little by little. President Asif Zardari has declared May 11 as the date for the simultaneous elections to the National and provincial Assemblies. Unfortunately, the outgoing Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and Leader of the Opposition Chaudhry Nisar were unable to agree on a consensus name for a caretaker prime minister. The decision therefore has now passed to the parliamentary committee composed of four members each from the government and opposition. Whereas the government has given representation to some of its coalition allies, and even made former Railways Minister and ANP leader Ghulam Ahmed Bilour the convenor of the committee, the opposition has confined its choice of members to the PML-N alone, much to the chagrin of the recently migrated to the opposition benches MQM and JUI-F. In addition, if Chaudhry Nisar’s remarks reflect the mandate the PML-N has given its members on the committee, it seems that this forum too may not be able to come to any agreement. In that case of course, the decision will lie with the election commission. It would be a pity if the political forces were unable to take full advantage of the opportunity the constitution for the first time offers the polity to come together in a democratic spirit to decide on the caretaker prime minister. Unfortunately, partisanship seems to be at work to subvert the intent of the constitution to allow the political forces to take this historic decision. Nevertheless the situation is not beyond hope just yet, and in any case, if the politicians fail to agree, the process will and should be completed by the election commission. While at the Centre the process of agreeing on a consensus prime minister is still unresolved, in the provinces we appear to be further along the road. Three provincial Assemblies stand dissolved (Sindh, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan) while the fourth is on the verge (Punjab, where Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif has reportedly moved the summary for dissolution of the Assembly to the Governor). In two provinces (Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) the caretaker chief ministers have been agreed and are on the verge of taking oath of office. In Balochistan, the complex interplay of pro- and anti-Aslam Raisani forces are jockeying for their candidate for chief minister. We are not there yet. Punjab too is still engaged (softly, softly, it must be said) in deciding the caretaker chief minister’s name. On the whole, the provinces are proceeding along the path of installing the arrangements for caretakers. The bottom line for the character of the caretakers, whether prime minister or chief ministers, should be that they are neutral, have no vested interests, and are people of integrity who will ensure they carry out their task fairly and without fear or favour. At the same time, they should confine themselves to their mandate of conducting fair, free and transparent elections and not exceed it to tinker with things beyond their purview. Were this to come to pass along these lines, Pakistan may well be poised on the cusp of a historic democratic transition from one set of elected governments to the next, with all the positive implications for consolidating the democratic system in a country bedevilled throughout its history by anti-democratic and anti-constitutional twists and turns.
Tuesday, March 19, 2013
President Mohamed Morsi’s visit Mohamed Morsi has paid the first visit by an Egyptian president to Pakistan in five decades. This is the first leg of the Egyptian president’s trip to South Asia. He will be visiting India next. Interaction between the presidents and delegations of Egypt and Pakistan has produced the expected and welcome drawing together of the two brotherly countries. President Asif Zardari has come out with a very wise offer for Pakistan and Egypt to play a role in finding a peaceful solution to the Syrian conflict. He said the drive for peace in Syria must be led and owned by the Syrian people (shades of Pakistan’s formulation for peace in Afghanistan). President Zardari urged concerted steps to take the existing Pak-Egyptian relationship to new heights, with a focus on trade and investment. As a result of the talks, the two countries have signed various agreements and MoUs in the fields of postal services, merchant shipping, media cooperation, science and technology and small and medium enterprises. A biennial summit in rotation in Pakistan and Egypt was mooted. Support for the Palestinian cause was reiterated, with emphasis on the Palestinian people being given their right to a state that is contiguous and viable. The history of the relationship between Pakistan and Egypt is full of ups and downs. Soon after independence, the gravitation of Egypt and India towards each other, particularly in the Non-Aligned Movement, at the same time as Pakistan was entering the fold of the ‘most allied ally’ of the US-led west, inevitably meant some distance between Cairo and Islamabad. Despite lip service to the cause of the Arabs and Palestinians against Israel and its western backers, unfortunately Shaheed Suhrawardy’s government in 1956 did not support Gamal Abdul Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal or the subsequent war between the Arabs on the one hand and Israel, France and Britain on the other, despite the sentiment of solidarity with the Arabs on the street in Pakistan. That further soured relations with Cairo. In the subsequent wars between the Arabs and Israel too, Islamabad’s support remained shrouded in ambiguity. In 1970, then Brigadier Ziaul Haq led his armoured brigade's tanks against the Palestinian camps in Jordan, slaughtering and driving out the Palestinian fighters and refugees into Lebanon. Whatever support was forthcoming in the wars between the Arabs and Israel, was always heavily compromised by this history and the bitterness it evoked in the Arab world against Pakistan. Of course things changed when Egypt under Anwer Sadat made peace with Israel, effectively betraying the Arab and Palestinian cause and suffering the consequences in his assassination at the hands of Islamists. Hosni Mubarak continued Sadat’s legacy and policy for 30 years until finally overthrown by the Arab Spring movement of the people of Egypt that brought Mr Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood movement to power in the elections. Although the subsequent tenure of Mr Morsi has been dogged by controversy and opposition by the liberal, secular, democratic forces that actually spearheaded the Egyptian movement against Mubarak, President Zardari papered all that over diplomatically by praising the change in Egypt and wishing his guest more and better achievements along the path of democracy and change underway in that country. While we wish President Morsi and the Egyptian people well and hope for the consolidation of a democracy acceptable to all the people of Egypt, including the alienated forces on the street against the Muslim Brotherhood’s domination of post-Mubarak Egypt, it needs to be reiterated that Pakistan must undo the history of mistrust and suspicion in Cairo because of the past and come forward to support not only Egypt but the Palestinian and Arab cause wholeheartedly. There can be no peace in the Middle east if the Palestinians are not given their inalienable rights, including statehood, and unless the good sentiments expressed vis-à-vis Syria are translated into concrete steps to stay the hands of the west-supported Syrian opposition (which includes al Qaeda affiliates) and bring all parties in that conflict to the negotiating table. Whatever else it produces, and no matter how much bloodshed transpires before, the fall of the Bashar Al-Assad regime at the hands of a rebellion backed covertly and overtly by the west and certain Arab monarchies such as Saudi Arabia and Qatar will only end up weakening further the anti-Israeli, anti-imperialist front in the region. The powerful states of the region and the west must not be allowed to overthrow another anti-imperialist regime in the Arab world after the blatant intervention in and overthrow of Gaddafi in Libya. Imperialist intervention needs to be stopped in its tracks in the Middle East and wherever else it is contemplated if the world is to take a turn away from wars and towards peace, development and prosperity on the basis of global cooperation.
Monday, March 18, 2013
Wheeling-dealing over caretakers By the time these lines appear in print, the deadline for deciding the name of the caretaker Prime Minister (PM) will have passed. On present form, it seems increasingly unlikely that the government and opposition will arrive at a consensus. Both sides have rejected each other’s list of names. In addition, Leader of the Opposition (LoO) Chaudhry Nisar has annoyed his party’s recently found electoral ally the JUI-F by withdrawing one of the names of the three originally put forward by the PML-N, that of Justice (retd) Shakirullah Jan. Since the matter seemed stalled, ‘new’ names began to circulate as candidates for caretaker PM, which actually were mostly the same old names that had been speculated on earlier, and most of whom had been rejected by one or the other side. Despite positive noises the government and opposition have continued to make about finding a consensus candidate through continuing dialogue, it appears unlikely that the issue will be resolved at the level of the outgoing PM and the LoO. Despite both sides’ reservations about allowing the issue to be relegated to and decided by the parliamentary committee, this too appears more and more likely. Chaudhry Shujaat is not unhappy at this possibility, since he is one of the members named on the committee by the government, giving him a say in the choice of caretaker PM. The opposition of course has so far not even listed its members for the committee, a task that has fallen foul of Chaudhry Nisar’s desire for a purely PML-N representation, which legal luminaries consider unconstitutional. Chaudhry Nisar’s intransigence in the face of Maulana Fazlur Rehman’s demand that Justice (retd) Shakirullah Jan’s name be reinserted in the list of candidates for caretaker PM, and his public show of no confidence in the JUI-F’s participation in the parliamentary committee means that the committee may either not be formed, or fall foul of controversy and even rejection. That means Article 224-A will then kick in, reducing the list of candidates for caretaker PM to two each from either side, and transferring the decision to the election commission, which has only two days to take a decision. March 24, according to the constitutional timeline, is the ultimate cutoff date. As if things were not complicated enough at the Centre, Balochistan is the leading contender for a province that seems bogged down in political and constitutional crises. Outgoing Chief Minister (CM) Aslam Raisani is haemorrhaging political support from even his own party’s ranks. Seventeen members of his erstwhile coalition government, including alienated members of his own PPP, have tendered their resignations to the Governor and asked to be allowed to sit on the opposition benches. The situation is complicated by the fact that the original Speaker of the Assembly, Aslam Bhootani, was turfed out by the PPP-led coalition when he rejected Raisani’s desire for an Assembly session to take a vote of confidence. His replacement, Matiullah Agha, has declared Maulana Abdul Wasey as LoO, replacing the displaced LoO Nawab Tariq Magsi. Magsi went to the Balochistan High Court (BHC) against his dismissal as LoO and the BHC upheld his stance. Now the ‘new’ Speaker Matiullah Afghan wants to appeal in the Supreme Court against the BHC’s verdict. Meanwhile Magsi claims the support of 35-40 members now that a mass stampede of former government ministers and members has gone over to the opposition. They claim a majority over Raisani in the Assembly. Raisani says he will tender advice to dissolve the Assembly on March 19, having faced a revolt from within and therefore not even being able to hold a meeting of the provincial cabinet where he wanted to present his ‘agreements’ with President Asif Zardari in Islamabad. If your head is spinning by now, who can blame you? A right sorry mess indeed. The spectacle politicians are making of themselves at the federal and provincial levels when confronted with the task of agreeing a consensus caretaker PM and CMs will bring grist to the mill of the anti-democratic forces that argue our political class is hopeless and democracy is not for us. To the naysayers we can only say: despite these teething pains on terra incognita, the democracy project is nevertheless stumbling along, enough room exists for these issue s to be settled one way or the other, and the elections will take place and on time. That is both the irreducible necessity and best for the country.
Sunday, March 17, 2013
Balance sheet Pakistan has witnessed a historic moment. At the stroke of midnight on Saturday, the democratically elected National Assembly, having completed its term of five years (a first for Pakistan), stood automatically dissolved. The country now stands poised to complete another first, a democratic transition from one elected government to the next. Despite the temporary hiccups regarding the process of selecting a consensus caretaker prime minister and chief ministers in some provinces, the transition process as laid down in the constitution has enough failsafe layers to ensure successful completion. Looking back over the past five years of the PPP-led coalition government at the Centre, it must be admitted that even after discounting the bias of the lobby that has a visceral hatred of the PPP, there is much room for discontent and relatively little to show in terms of achievement. This is not to say that those achievements do not have their own importance and weightage, only that the mountain of problems the government has left behind as a legacy means this is what will remain in public memory, rather than the positives. So how does the balance sheet of the last five years of democracy pan out? First, the positives. The government continued to claim almost throughout its tenure the milestones of the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, the ‘restoration’ of the 1973 constitution through the 18th Amendment, and its success in completing its five year tenure because of the policy of reconciliation first enunciated by late Benazir Bhutto. The NFC Award through consensus empowered the provinces financially by increasing their share of the federal divisible pool. The 18th Amendment abolished the concurrent list (much after it was intended, but better late than never) and transferred all the subjects in it to the provinces. On the one hand this lightened the top heavy structure of the federal government, on the other it gave at least the potential to the provincial governments to manage far more than before, although it must be admitted that they still have some way to go before it can be claimed that they have realized that potential fully. Nevertheless, the change is permanent and struck a long overdue blow for provincial autonomy against a historically overcentralised state structure. It is now for future provincial governments to grasp the historic opportunity they have been presented with. The policy of reconciliation allowed the PPP to attract and keep with it diverse coalition partners such as the MQM, ANP and PML-Q, even after the PML-N quit the coalition in 2008 over the issue of restoration of the superior judiciary. The PPP has been surprisingly modest regarding its toleration of unrelenting criticism, not all of it justified or free of bias and vested interest, from the by now free and powerful media. Such a record of toleration for five years is also a first for any government in Pakistan. Additionally, the PPP government did not properly air another feather in its cap: not one political prisoner or falsely implicated in cases political rival over these five years. Those familiar with the dark history of such repression in Pakistan’s history will appreciate the historic turn towards a democratic culture that this development implies. Having said all this, it must be stated that the five years of the PPP government leaves behind a great deal of debris in the shape of the people’s discontent. The management of the economy, admittedly under strain because of the global recession, domestic terrorism and breakdown of law and order, and above all the energy crisis, has taken its toll in terms of low growth, rising unemployment and inflation, and the increasing inability of millions of the poor to make ends meet, with welfare projects such as the Benazir Income Support Programme unable to help more than a few thousand families in a sea of spreading penury. The PPP government’s manifest failure to curb terrorism, which incrementally has spread through the length and breadth of the country, impacted all aspects of national life in profound ways, raising insecurity, creating a climate of lawlessness in which crime flourished, and dragging the economy further into the doldrums. Failures and discontents notwithstanding, the outgoing government and the people deserve a pat on the back for completing a democratically elected government’s tenure, with hope in a future of better things to come so long as the country stays on the path of democracy and freedom, with at least the potential for expanding the delivery of political, economic and social rights to the people.
Saturday, March 16, 2013
Political deadlock looms The 18th Amendment to the constitution has laid down a three-layered procedure for appointing the caretaker Prime Minister (PM) after the National Assembly (NA) is dissolved. By the time these lines appear in print, that event will have come to pass at midnight on the night of March 16-17. The procedure laid down is that the government, represented by the outgoing PM, and the opposition, represented by the Leader of the Opposition (LoO), are supposed to agree on a consensus candidate for caretaker PM. In practice of course, this eminently rational procedure has been beset by the usual perambulations of our political culture. The names for caretaker PM put forward by the government have been rejected in toto by Chaudhry Nisar, the LoO, and the names put forward by the latter, of which he has himself withdrawn one, have been rejected by the government side. Although the redoubtable Chaudhry says the process of consultations will continue, time is running out. If there is no agreement between the two sides within three days of the dissolution of the NA, the issue goes to an eight-member parliamentary committee with equal representation of the treasury and opposition. If in turn the parliamentary committee is unable to arrive at a consensus from the list of names presented by the government and opposition or any new names it may come up with itself within three days, the choice will be that of the election commission. The way things have developed between the government and the opposition, it looks uncertain whether the parliamentary committee will be able to do any better a job of finding a consensus candidate for caretaker PM than the outgoing PM and LoO have managed. At the provincial level, the picture is that of a mixed bag. Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) has led the rest of the provinces by agreeing on a caretaker Chief Minister (CM) in the shape of Justice (retd) Tariq Pervez, a respected member of the judiciary. Outgoing CM Ameer Haider Khan Hoti announced the decision at a press conference on Friday, indicating that unlike the national LoO and the outgoing PM, he had not written letters to the LoO in KP but had simply gone over and talked to Akram Khan Durrani until they arrived at an agreement. This instance seems more in line with and imbued by the democratic spirit of what the amended constitution intended. If only the Centre and the other provinces could take a leaf out of KP’s book, the country may be spared more angst and uncertainty. Alas, it does not look like that is about to happen. In Sindh, the PPP and the MQM, the latter as now the largest ‘opposition’ party, have exchanged names of candidates. The other opposition parties, PML-F, PML-LM too have put forward their favoured names. It may well be that an agreement will be hammered out in Karachi within the deadline. In Punjab and Balochistan however, there are complications. After the meeting of the four CMs with the PM, the only point of agreement to emerge was that the national and provincial elections would be held simultaneously, but there was no agreement on the simultaneous dissolution of the provincial assemblies, despite the fact that at one point it seemed that March 19 had been agreed for the purpose. The fly (ies) in the ointment were that Punjab CM Shahbaz Sharif did not want to commit till he had consulted his elder brother and party chief Nawaz Sharif, who happens to be abroad. Restored Balochistan CM Aslam Raisani seems to have reversed himself after the meeting with the PM. A constitutional crisis looms again in the province. The framers of the 18th amendment seem to have relied first and foremost on the political maturity of the actors settling these matters in order to ensure a smooth democratic transition. However, they kept their powder dry by seeing to it that fall back procedures would ensure the matter was settled one way or the other in the event that the stakeholders fell back onto their usual antics. This is where we seem to be today. May the people of Pakistan be blessed with wise leaders who can see beyond their nose.
Thursday, March 14, 2013
Too little, too late On the eve of the dissolution of parliament, it was strange to see both houses active in passing legislation in a hurry. Having already been passed by the National Assembly (NA), the National Counter-Terrorism Authority (NACTA) bill was passed by the Senate unanimously despite a critique by PPP Senator Raza Rabbani and questioning of the haste on display by Senator Mohsin Leghari. Rabbani’s reservations revolved around the fact that though it is described as an independent body, NACTA did not answer to the description since it would work under the bureaucracy. He also pointed out that the composition of the NACTA Board of Governors (BoG) meant that the military would command a superior position, one proof of which was that the prime minister, despite heading NACTA and its BoG, would be able to do nothing if the head of any agency did not attend NACTA meetings. Rabbani went on to say that the NACTA BoG was expected to be comprised of terrorism experts and federal secretaries, and questioned their ‘expertise’ in countering terrorism. He therefore, for all these reasons, did not think NACTA would fulfil the objectives for which it was being set up. Mohsin Leghari on the other hand did not want such an important piece of legislation passed in haste and wanted it sent to the committee concerned for further deliberations. The house nevertheless passed the bill and no party opposed it. The main purpose of the setting up of NACTA is said to be to ensure coordination and interaction amongst the federal, provincial, civilian and military law enforcement and intelligence organisations. Although we have consistently argued in this space for the setting up of a centralised anti-terrorism body, whether NACTA lives up to that billing remains to be seen. While the Senate was smoothing the path of the NACTA bill, the NA unanimously approved the Anti-Terrorism (Second Amendment) bill 2013, but only after the government, in its inexplicable hurry to see the bill passed, accepted 18 amendments suggested by the PML-N, MQM and others. Although the bill was originally being described as stringent, analysts are of the view that the incorporation of these amendments has drawn the teeth of the law. The bill empowers the government to preventively detain, for 30 days at a time and after recording reasons for the same, any person involved in any offence under the Anti-Terrorism Act 1997 (as now amended by this bill), or against whom a reasonable complaint has been made or credible information received or a reasonable suspicion exists of his having been so involved, for purpose of inquiry. Further, this preventive detention may be extended by an anti-terrorism court for 30 days at a time, while recording reasons for the same, up to a maximum of 90 days. Interestingly, journalists have been included in the list of people, departments and installations against whom attacks and intimidation would be dealt with under this amended law. Last but not least, the bill empowers the authorities to declare as proscribed any organisation composed of the leading lights of an already proscribed organisation who seek to re-invent themselves under a new name (as has happened to all the organisations banned under the Musharraf regime). It is amazing that at the fag end of its tenure, a fire has suddenly been lit under the government (with some help from the opposition) on these issues when five years have been wasted unnecessarily. To recall, the EU offered Pakistan a centralised anti-terrorism organisation, to be funded and provided training by EU experts, years ago. That proposal fell foul of turf wars over who would lead it, the Interior Minister, a civilian, or someone in uniform. Needless to say, the outgoing minister proved unacceptable to the military (and perhaps others), and the military seemed reluctant to share intelligence with its civilian counterparts. The present arrangement has elevated the office of head of NACTA to the prime minister, incorporated the heads of all civilian and military law enforcement and intelligence agencies, plus the four provincial chief ministers. If anything, this structure seems too unwieldy and therefore scepticism will persist that it is unworkable, quite apart from the quizzical questions why this has been promulgated now, when its fate would only be known at the hands of the incoming government after the elections. While the idea is good in principle, all these questions and anomalies as to structure, functioning and timing mean that we will only know if this really is an advance on present arrangements (including preventive detention for a similar period under the MPO) in the fullness of time.
Wednesday, March 13, 2013
ECP, government, SC at odds The path of democracy in Pakistan ne’er did run smooth. Now, virtually on the eve of the announcement of the elections schedule, new and unexpected problems, issues and roadblocks have thrown up their ugly heads, giving the conspiracy theory industry lots more material to play around with. With so many crosscurrents in the air, it is hardly a surprise that the people of Pakistan are nothing if not confused, nay in a daze at what to make of the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party we are living through these days. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) received a unanimous certificate of credibility not so long ago when a consensus Chief Election Commissioner, Justice (retd) Fakhruddin G Ebrahim was appointed. With his reputation for integrity, it was felt that Pakistan was on the cusp of a transparent, free and fair election, a transition through the ballot box from one elected government to the next, i.e. the laying of the foundations of agreed rules of the political game and the consolidation of a democratic order. How far we have advanced along this road since can and should be measured against the present controversy that has broken out between the ECP and the outgoing government regarding the nomination papers for aspiring candidates in the upcoming elections. In essence, the ECP is asking for so much detail on the political, economic and private life of candidates that the amended form runs the risk of being seen more as an inquisitional instrument rather than the prima facie tool for assessing a candidate’s suitability to run for elective office. The Federal Law Minister is said to have reservations on the amendments, hence the one-month delay in approval from the president of the new forms, an approval mandatory under the constitution, but on which the ECP now seems to have reversed itself and dubbing the president's approval a ‘mere formality’, has gone ahead with having the new forms printed. This has invoked the ire of Senators as well criticism from such legal luminaries as Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan on the ECP acting beyond its mandate and in violation of the prescribed procedure in the constitution. Meanwhile the Supreme Court (SC) too has weighed into the fray. Taking notice of the controversy, a three-member bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry has ruled that its verdict of June 8, 2012, in which it elaborately interpreted Article 218 (3) should be the touchstone on which the elections should be organised and conducted and that the government should assist the ECP to do just that. Failing government facilitation, the SC has encouraged the ECP to implement in letter and spirit the judgement without fear or favour. The ECP, buoyed by the SC’s support, has not only stuck to its guns on the printing of the new forms despite the reservations of its member from Sindh, but also gone ahead with its proposed 24 amendments to the Representation of the People’s Act, 1976. If the amendments cannot be passed before the Assemblies are dissolved (a most likely scenario), the ECP desires these reforms to be promulgated through an Ordinance by the caretakers. They include, inter alia, an increase in the scrutiny period for nomination papers from seven to 14 days, elimination of the president’s role in appointment of election tribunals, suspension of any official who disobeys the ECP, increase in nomination fees, penalties for fraud, violations of election rules, corruption, disorderliness, etc. On the face of it the reforms seem positive, but the timing leaves many questions unanswered. It seems the constitution, laws and rules governing the country have been reduced to convenient interpretation by one or the other powerful, or aspiring to be powerful, state institution. It does no good to interpret clearly written down provisions that require the approval of the president as a ‘mere formality’ when it suits some quarters. The desire for transparency in candidates’ nomination papers is not in itself a bad thing if fraudulent, dishonest and corrupt elements are to be weeded out, but an excess of zeal in this direction is not desirable either. The contradiction between transparency and privacy must not be resolved in favour of a modern day Inquisition that not only rejects candidates unwilling to share what they see as information that is private and irrelevant to the electoral process, but also acts as a deterrent to new aspiring entrants into the electoral race. The ECP must review the criticisms being heaped on its head because of the new forms and proposed reforms that it has suddenly thought of at the eleventh hour and not get dragged into controversies that may impact on its credibility and that of the elections. All stakeholders are advised to keep the bigger picture in view – holding the elections in time and in a reasonably acceptable manner.
Thursday, March 7, 2013
The Bolivarian revolution Hugo Chavez of Venezuela finally lost a two-year battle against cancer on Tuesday. First detected in 2011, he had been under treatment in Cuba for most of the period since. The outpouring of grief amongst his people is testimony of his popularity, especially amongst the poor whom he made the centrepiece of his policies. Inevitably, that brought upon his head the hatred and vilification of the rich, whose privileges and dominant economic and social position in Venezuelan society he challenged. Messages of condolence have arrived thick and fast from virtually all over the world, including some of the countries considered his sworn enemies. Many world leaders are expected to attend his funeral in Caracas today, which some commentators say will rival that of Argentinean icon Eva Peron in 1952 in size and fervour. Speculation in the international and local media has centred on the possible fate of the Bolivarian revolution Chavez led in Latin America. This was a movement to emulate the example of Latin American independence fighter Simon Bolivar, whose dream was to see Latin America united, especially against the domination of its powerful northern neighbour, the US. While Venezuela had the unprecedented advantage of huge oil revenues (the country has the largest oil reserves in the world at an estimated 296 billion barrels) to fund Chavez’s social and economic redistributive policies on income, wealth and welfare for the poor, the whole of Latin America virtually has swung towards the left (through the ballot box) in recent years after the leftist guerilla movements of the 1960s and 1970s, attempting to emulate Fidel Castro’s revolutionary success in Cuba, had been defeated (with the notable exception of Colombia). Venezuela no doubt had been richly endowed by nature, but the use Chavez put the huge oil revenues to led to halving poverty and lifting millions out of absolute poverty by investment in education, health, housing, etc. All this was not achieved without the wealthy classes attempting to oust him through unconstitutional means when they realised he was too popular to be defeated at the hustings, a fact unmistakably established by his winning election after election hands down since he was first propelled to power in 1998. Before that, he had spent a stint of two years in jail from 1992 to 1994 for an attempted military uprising against the brutal repressive rule of his predecessor, Carlos Andres Perez. A paratrooper himself, Chavez never looked back from that initial failed bid for power, so much so that when a coup attempted to unseat him in 2002, the people mobilised and reversed the bid in 48 hours, such was the loyalty of his people with one of the few leaders in Venezuela or Latin America’s history who altered the lives of the poor for the better. Like so many other popular (and populist) Latin American leaders, Chavez was steadily pushed leftwards by the arrogant and domineering attitudes of Washington, and finally openly embraced socialism in 2005. For this shift, due credit must also go to his lifelong friend Fidel Castro of Cuba, who became a father figure and mentor to the Venezuelan president 20 years his junior. His leftward drift and friendship with Castro naturally invoked the open hostility of the US. Chavez in turn became more and more anti-imperialist, railing against Washington’s desire to dominate Latin America and the world. Consistent with his appreciation of the US as the greatest danger to regimes such as his, he sought friends in Latin America (the leftist governments of the region) and further abroad -- countries in conflict with, and threatened by, US hegemony (Iran, Syria, etc). While he consolidated his ties with friendly countries in Latin America through economic and political close ties, his allies further abroad formed part of a broad anti-imperialist coalition that challenged US hegemony. Chavez’s likely successor in the elections to be held within 30 days is Vice President Nicolas Maduro. If, as expected, he wins, he will have his task cut out for him. Critics point to the problems left behind by Chavez’s legacy. Crime, deteriorating infrastructure (including in the oil sector), inflation (currently 18 percent) and other ‘failings’ are constantly trotted out by Chavez’s inveterate opponents to predict doom and gloom for Venezuela and 'Chavismo', not to mention the Bolivarian revolution. But the trend of history indicates that what Chavez wrought, and what he has left behind as a legacy, will be difficult to reverse, let alone wipe out, since it has been embraced with enthusiasm by the masses of the poor. Rest in peace, Comrade Hugo Chavez. We salute you as a champion of the people.
Tuesday, March 5, 2013
Aftermath of the Karachi blasts The country had not quite digested the Quetta sectarian carnage incidents in January and February when we had once again to be subjected to indiscriminate terrorism against innocent citizens in Karachi on Sunday. Although the targeted area, Abbas Town, is predominantly Shia, it also has Sunnis. The result is that even if the terrorists intended only to target Shias, they ended up killing and maiming many from both denominations. The spirit of solidarity displayed by citizens in helping each other after the blasts, while the security and rescue services were nowhere in sight, gladdens the hearts of all who see the sectarian terrorists as the worst of a bad lot. Tragically, as though the loss of life, limb and property were not enough on Sunday, the following day the funeral processions of some of the dead were fired upon and more people killed, as a result of which complete mayhem and chaos broke out, with again the law enforcement agencies conspicuous by their absence. While some diehard critics were wont to blame the deployment of the security forces at the engagement ceremony of a PPP leader on Sunday, it appears more likely that the security agencies took a deliberate decision to stay out of the line of fire until things settled down. Whether this can be described as strategy, dereliction of duty, or just plain cowardice is open to conjecture. Several areas of Karachi soon came under the grip of spreading violence, with no clear idea who was attacking who and why. If this not a state of anarchy, what is? While all friendly countries have condemned the latest incident of sectarian terrorism, the Supreme Court has once again felt constrained to take suo motu notice of the incident and will be hearing the matter at its Karachi Registry today. Ominously, just as in the case of the former Balochistan government, there is more than a hint in the Supreme Court’s formulation that it may examine whether the Sindh government has lost its constitutional validity for being unable to protect the lives and properties of citizens. A heated debate in the Senate has blamed both the government and the intelligence agencies for a manifest failure. Irrepressible Interior Minister Rehman Malik has once again tried to twist the knife in the PML-N’s back by calling the perpetrators ‘Punjabi Taliban’, implying the Punjab government’s ‘soft’ attitude to groups like Lashkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ), which claimed the Quetta bombings, is to blame. He also wondered aloud whether these activities so close to the elections were meant to sabotage the polls. In the same breath, he also made the laughable claim that the backbone of the terrorists has been broken, citing the arrest of 30 LeJ activists as proof! With due respect Mr Minister, the terrorists are neither Punjabi nor any other nationality, as we have learnt over the last four decades. They are simply terrorists. Admittedly the Punjab government’s equivocation on the LeJ and similar groups has led to a lot of unease, but no one can be absolved of the blame for the situation having reached this pass. The ‘benign neglect’ of sectarian terrorist groups by all governments, federal and provincial, while ostensibly focusing on the Tehreek-e-Taliban Pakistan-type activist, is now coming home to roost with a vengeance. Karachi is once again emerging as a sectarian flashpoint after Quetta. Last year, sectarian, terror, bhatta (extortion) and other criminal targeting killed 2,200 people in Karachi. Of these, 400 were Shia. In the first two months of the current year, 450 have already died. This seems to suggest an incremental escalation of terror, sectarian and other. We now have the unenviable situation of an incumbent elected government in its last days (i.e. virtually a lame duck), while the caretaker government to replace it is still not decided, making it difficult to hazard a guess what, if anything, it might intend to do about the spreading terror threat, which can not only cause the elections to be sabotaged, even if they are held to deny the terrorists that satisfaction, they could easily turn out to be very bloody. It is time for all the stakeholders to put their heads together on an emergency basis to put in place a centralized, coordinated anti-terror mechanism before the rivers of blood that have started to flow sweep everything good and positive along with them.
Sunday, March 3, 2013
MQM-PPP off-on romance As predicted in this space, the MQM’s departure from the PPP-led government coalition literally weeks before the elections may not have constituted a total break. The immediate cause of the MQM’s departure was not clear, but the development gave the Sindh PPP the opportunity to repeal the Sindh People’s Local Government (SPLG) Act 2012 and reinstate the 1979 local government system. Apart from Pir Pagara’s PML-F and ANP, both of whom quit the coalition when the SPLG was promulgated, with the latter returning recently, the Sindhi nationalists and even the ranks of the Sindh PPP were resentful of what was essentially a hurried passage of the SPLG to virtually hand over the cities of Sindh to the MQM in perpetuity. With the departing MQM no longer able to exert pressure on its larger coalition partner the PPP to do its bidding, the Sindh Assembly wasted no time in throwing out the SPLG. The MQM federal and provincial ministers and Sindh Governor Eshratul Ibad too had resigned in the wake of the MQM’s departure, but now, on instructions from MQM supremo Altaf Hussain, the Governor has withdrawn his resignation and reassumed his duties, having met President Asif Ali Zardari in Lahore to seal his return. The ministers’ resignations are intact, and the MQM has not, as has been its practice through the last five years, returned to the fold of the coalition. The ubiquitous interior minister Rehman Malik, who has again and again played the role of troubleshooter in matters related to the difficult ally of the PPP, has once again had a meeting with Altaf Hussain in London, after which there is talk in the air of the core committee of both parties discussing matters, which no doubt will include the SPLG issue as well as the possibility of seat adjustments in the elections. This means that, as the reports after the London meeting indicate, both parties are not at the point of no return and regard the relationship as intact despite recent differences, and although they will go into the elections as separate parties with their own symbols, etc, cooperation is on the cards. Basically, any such cooperation would be centred on seats in the cities, since the MQM’s presence in the rural areas of Sindh is, to put it politely, thin. However, the MQM’s hopes of once again dominating the cities of Sindh may receive a setback from the Supreme Court’s (SC’s) insistence that its order to carry out fresh delimitation of constituencies in Karachi be implemented by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) even without a census. The ECP, succumbing to MQM pressure according to news reports, had retreated from its initial stance that it would carry out the SC’s orders in letter and spirit and attempted to justify its about turn by pleading the fresh delimitation could not be carried out without a census. The SC has given short shrift to this smokescreen and ordered the ECP to do its bidding. This is essential if the gerrymandering of constituencies imposed by the Musharraf regime to advantage the MQM is to be corrected. This constitutes the second defeat for the MQM in recent days, after the SPLG debacle. It appears from these developments that the era of the ability of the MQM to bend things its own way as it has been able to do since 1999, may finally be drawing to a close. Not a moment too soon, one might add, if free, fair and transparent elections are the objective.
Saturday, March 2, 2013
Musharraf’s return General (retd) Pervez Musharraf was known for chutzpah, amongst other things. Now, after five years of self-imposed exile that corresponds almost exactly with the tenure of the incumbent government and numerous false alarms during this time that he was about to return to the country and take politics by storm, we now have the ‘definitive’ return date. The good general has now declared from one of his watering holes (Dubai) that he will be back one week after the caretaker government takes over. The implication (unstated) is that Musharraf thinks a caretaker setup may go easier on him than the present outgoing one. Obviously, the need for this assessment/calculation is suggested by the fact that a number of cases loom like the Sword of Damocles over the general’s head. First and foremost, by now (albeit belatedly) he stands charged with Benazir Bhutto’s assassination, an accusation young Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari has publicly endorsed on international television. Unfortunately the investigation into her murder and the subsequent trial have both proved unsatisfactory, for content as much as for pace. If this were not deterrent enough against risking his neck on Pakistani soil, the general may also have to face the music on the charge of the murder of Nawab Akbar Khan Bugti. The military establishment since that seminal event in 2006, which left the province of Balochistan even more disturbed and troubled than before, has been bending over backwards to absolve itself of any wrongdoing in this affair, ascribing Nawab sahib’s death to a whole range of explanations, from unknown causes to suicide. Yet facts are stubborn things, and the surreptitious manner in which Nawab Akbar Bugti’s body was hurriedly buried without allowing his family to carry out his last rites, puts us to greater shame even than India’s hanging of Afzal Guru in Tihar Jail and burying his body there without even the courtesy of informing his family. Then there are all manner and hue of Laal Masjid victims and their supporters waiting in the wings to bring Musharraf to justice. In case Musharraf is relying on the judicial system to save his neck, he should be aware that the superior judiciary he emasculated and dismissed under his Emergency in 2007 is unlikely to view him sympathetically. Musharraf intends to thrust his head into the lion’s den that awaits him in Pakistan, with speculations in the media that he may be relying on some guarantees against his arrest on arrival (a threat held out by the present government) from the Saudis, and the possible support of the military that might be reluctant to see a former COAS behind bars. That remains to be seen, although we know that such brokered ‘deals’ are the stuff of our history. Musharraf claims he represents the ‘third force’ in counterpoint to the PPP and PML-N. He claims his party will put up candidates on almost all the seats. However, two questions remain unanswered. One, his power base having evaporated over the last five years, what gives him the confidence about his chances at the hustings? Two, if his claim of putting up candidates on almost all seats is taken at face value, that sounds like a huge enterprise. Where will the funding come from? Has Musharraf made so much money on the international lecture circuit or has he found a powerful financier? All this is still in the realm of speculation. The existing or potential court cases against Musharraf mentioned above aside, what no one has said is whether Pakistan has evolved democratically to the point where a military coup maker can be held accountable for his violation of the constitution and attracting the provisions of Article 6. Yahya Khan was declared a usurper long after he was dead by our judiciary compromised in the past by its legitimisation of every dictator in our history. Have we turned the page and do we have the political will to bring this living dictator to book? Tall order, vital question.