Saturday, October 31, 2015
Local bodies polls Twelve districts in Punjab and eight in Sindh went to the polls on Saturday to elect their representatives for the local bodies after a hiatus of 10 years, but this time on political party basis. Unfortunately, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and its provincial branches in Punjab and Sindh, contrary to the hope that they would have learnt some lessons from past controversies, seem again to have failed to conduct satisfactory local elections, partially if not substantially. Reports poured in all day of anomalies, mistakes and mismanagement in the polling in various constituencies throughout the two provinces, in a replay of the manner in which elections have been held since 2013 (general elections) and to date (by-elections). The credibility of the ECP was already virtually in tatters since the controversy over the 2013 general elections was agitated by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) with allegations about rigging that found their extended and most vigorous expression in the seven month sit-in by the PTI in Islamabad. The PTI may have been guilty of exaggeration and distortion of what actually transpired, as the conclusion of cases before the Election tribunals and the Judicial Commission that examined the 2013 electoral process indicated. No finding of systematic, planned rigging was discovered. However, both the Election Tribunals and the Judicial Commission pointed fingers at the mismanagement of the electoral process by the ECP. The PTI was not deterred by its failure to prove its rigging charges and continues to flog what is increasingly looking like a dead horse, upto and including on the eve of these local bodies elections. At the time of writing these lines, it is not possible to determine the outcome of these local elections as the Lahore High Court had initially stopped the media from announcing results until official confirmation was available, but later relented and allowed the media to start announcing the interim and non-official results as they become available, starting from one hour after the polls close, but with appropriate riders about the nature of these announcements as interim and unofficial. Whatever the final outcome, for the moment it is only possible to comment on the process itself, which again left something to be desired. First and foremost, it was alarming to be informed during the day that in some areas, the ballot papers had been wrongly printed and therefore voting could not take place in such locations. One wonders if the ECP has any process of checking its printed material before farming it out. Second, reports from some areas that unauthorised persons, particularly women, were caught openly stamping ballot papers according to their whims and wishes, often in the absence of polling staff. Third, and even more alarmingly, there were reports of clashes in both provinces. In Khairpur, Sindh, the home district of Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah, his niece was caught on camera stamping ballot papers and his nephew brandishing a rifle openly and blatantly in violation of the code and rules that no firearms could be carried or displayed openly. Later in the day, a clash between PPP and PML-F cadres resulted in guns being freely used and reaping a crop of at least 12 deaths and many injured. Although the Rangers were then deployed and a curfew imposed, the incident indicates the less than satisfactory security arrangements in what could have been easily identified as a hotly contested constituency. The outcome of the local bodies elections will become clear by and by. What will not become any clearer is why the present members of the ECP insist stubbornly in clinging to their posts when their credibility has been, to put it politely, called into question and at least one party, the PTI, has been demanding their resignation, albeit without success. In the absence of what seems the proper course for the present ECP setup to leave voluntarily, the aftermath of these local polls could present a case for their removal and the reconstitution of a fresh and credible ECP before the whole electoral process is reduced to such controversy that even the next general elections in 2018 become difficult if not impossible to hold, let alone for their results to be accepted across the board. Without a credible ECP and an electoral process whose results are broadly accepted by the stakeholders, the country could lurch from one crisis to the next until something either explodes or gives way. Since no member of the ECP can be removed except through the procedure laid down in Article 209, i.e. the same process that is involved in the removal of a judge of the superior judiciary through the Supreme Judicial Council, the unwillingness of the present ECP to give way may force the government’s hand to move references against the ECP members in the constitutionally approved manner.
Friday, October 30, 2015
Balancing act The Iranian National Security Adviser Ali Shamkhani’s visit to Pakistan and his interaction with the top leadership have encouraged hopes of cooperation between the two brotherly neighbouring countries as well as raised concerns about Pakistan’s regional foreign policy. In a meeting with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Mr Shamkhani did not mince his words in describing Saudi Arabia’s policy as one of stoking instability and insecurity in the region while that of the west as seeking ‘managed exploitation’ of terrorism to advance its agenda and interfere in the internal affairs of sovereign states. He praised the decision of Pakistan to stay out of Saudi Arabia’s military aggression against its impoverished neighbour Yemen. On the other hand he described Iran and Pakistan as two influential countries in the region and the Muslim world whose friendly and constructive relations have never been affected by change of governments. The fight against terrorism, he went on, was one of the pressing issues for both Tehran and Islamabad. Shamkhani also discussed the stalled peace talks in Afghanistan, border security between the two neighbours and economic development and cooperation. In the latter context he referred to the July agreement signed between Iran and the P5+1 on Tehran’s nuclear programme, the consequent potential removal of sanctions on Iran and the concomitant opening up of economic and other opportunities for cooperation between the two countries. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in turn appreciated Iran’s active and constructive role in regional matters, especially in the campaign against terrorism. Terrorism, the prime minister underlined, has turned into a global threat and his government remains committed to the battle against the scourge. He emphasised that Chabahar and Gwadar, far from being in competition as some hostile sources try to project, would be ‘sister ports’ and complement each other. Iran’s rehabilitation in the eyes of the powers that be following the agreement on its nuclear programme offers real and tangible advantages for completing the stalled Iran-Pakistan gas pipeline, which would help us overcome our energy crisis, and enhance overland trade across the common border. For the latter, road and even rail enhancement would be to mutual benefit. Iran has just scored another diplomatic victory by being invited by the US to join the multilateral discussions on the Syrian crisis, given that it is on the ground in the conflict on the side of Bashar al-Assad and therefore an important if not critical partner in the search for a political solution to that bloody war. In its stance in Syria, Iran is aligned with Russia in support of the al-Assad government. The US’s conceding to the need for Iranian participation in the Syrian dialogue has not gone down well with Saudi Arabia, which has only truculently and reluctantly accepted the necessity of including Iran in the endeavour. Iran’s growing stature globally should be taken note of by Pakistan and employed to its own benefit. However, Islamabad has to conduct a careful balancing act between the conflicting interests of Saudi Arabia and Iran and not get squeezed in the middle or give in to demands not in its own best interests, as it demonstrated in the Yemen case despite the obvious fallout of anger on the part of Riyadh and its ally the UAE. Pakistan cannot allow itself to be taken for granted by any country, no matter how friendly or generous, and should keep its own national interests above all else. Sometimes that ‘neutral’ stance will inevitably bring it into conflict with either of the two sides embroiled in a war of influence in the region, i.e. Saudi Arabia and Iran, a struggle some have likened to a war for the soul of the Muslim world. Difficult as it is, Islamabad should remain on good terms with both sides in this conflict, even if it means sometimes annoying one or the other side because of rejecting unacceptable demands on it, such as was implied in asking for the Pakistan army to act as a mercenary force in Yemen. Such adventures have never, and will never pay off and have the potential to damage Pakistan’s interests in unforeseeable ways. Pakistan needs such problems to add to its existing stock like it needs a hole in the head.
Thursday, October 22, 2015
A house divided The aftermath of the narrow victory in the NA-122 by-election and the losses in the PP-147 constituency in the same area and the NA-144 seat in Okara has brought unusual creases of worry to the brow of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. These worry lines are being caused by some of these new trends as well as some older problems within the ranks of the ruling PML-N. First the by-elections. PML-N's Ayaz Sadiq barely scraped home by a few thousand votes. The provincial seat in Lahore was lost in no uncertain fashion, providing the ruling party's main rival the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf some consolation. The Okara seat was lost to an independent candidate. In all three by-elections, rivers of gold and silver flowed from all sides. Not that this is a new phenomenon in our politics, but this occasion seems to have broken all past records. This underlines the reality that elections have now become such an expensive endeavour as to cut out all but moneybags with overflowing pockets. Conspicuous by its absence in this spending free for all was the Election Commission of Pakistan that failed to enforce spending limits laid down in the rules. The prime minister took his younger brother, Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif, as well as senior ministers and leaders of the party to task in a meeting at his residence in Lahore on the eve of his departure to the US for failing to support the campaigns of all their three candidates in these constituencies. While this reflects the seeming deep divisions within the party at the top level, it is only the tip of the iceberg. Federal ministers are publicly at each other's throats in recent days. Thus their statements in the media have exposed the PML-N as a house divided. To illustrate, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar (who was conspicuous by his absence) has reportedly not been talking to Defence, Water and Power Minister Khwaja Asif for at least four years! The former has rubbed the point home by saying publicly that he has no use for the defence ministry since he has direct access to GHQ. What this says about civilian supremacy needs no explanation. Khwaja Asif seems to be at loggerheads with a number of federal cabinet ministers as well as top leaders of the PML-N. Thus he is reported to have had a row not so long ago with Shahbaz Sharif regarding the latter's criticism of the workings of the Power ministry in managing the energy deficit and its concomitant persistent load shedding, a failure that is starker because of the exaggerated claims of the PML-N during the 2013 elections campaign to overcome load shedding within, variously, days, weeks, months. Halfway through its tenure, the government has fallen flat on its face in this regard, a failure highlighted by an extremely critical report by NEPRA regarding corruption and mismanagement in the energy sector. Khwaja Asif, in tandem with the Oil and Gas Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, has rounded on Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal. To add to the party's troubles, the rival factions of Punjab Minister of Law Rana Sanaullah and Chaudhry Sher Ali are publicly at daggers drawn over the impending local bodies elections,not the least because of a tussle over the mayor's slot in Faisalabad. Until now, Nawaz Sharif has behaved in a distant, aloof manner regarding these rifts but the by-elections outcome seems to have woken him up to the likely impact on the results of the local bodies elections of a divided party. Why is the PML-N's leadership behaving in this immature fashion? The reasons are to be found in the party's political culture which, despite the party being in electoral politics for decades, is not internally democratic. Thus individual egos and rivalries easily trump concepts of collective cabinet responsibility and internal fissures and differences not being aired in public. Second, the party is now suffering the almost inevitable trajectory of public opprobrium for its manifest inability to deliver an easing of the people's travails even halfway through its tenure. For the prime minister, the writing on the wall has finally become discernible in the light of the by-elections trend. The next elections will follow the local government elections and the latter's results can indirectly make or break the party's fortunes in 2018. Plenty to worry about, prime minister.
The penny drops In the wake of the relatively short lived takeover of the northern provincial capital of Kunduz by the Taliban and under pressure from his own military and security establishment, US President Barack Obama announced on October 15 that the planned drawdown of US troops to a small US embassy based contingent in Kabul by the time he leaves office in January 2017 would now be reversed/delayed. Instead the troops would be reduced to 5,500 starting sometime in 2017 and be based in four locations: Kabul, Bagram, Jalalabad and Kandahar. Some of these locations are critical to the operation of drones by the military and the CIA. The decision comes after months of deliberations between Obama, Afghan leaders, the Pentagon and commanders in the field. The discussions may have begun after Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's visit to Washington in March this year, but they have been lent urgency by the (temporary) fall of Kunduz in the north and the current ongoing siege of Ghazni in the east. The spread of the Taliban's new siege of provincial capitals' tactics, and the strategic importance of Kunduz in terms of Central Asia and Ghazni because it lies on the highway linking Kabul with Kandahar should, and indeed appear to have, set off alarm bells in Washington. The Taliban have timed these attacks, as well as deadly bombings in Kabul, in the aftermath of the abortive talks with the Afghan government hosted by Pakistan in Murree, the planned second round of these talks having fallen foul of the revelation of Mulla Omar's death two years ago. After some ruction as a result of of the revelation inside the Taliban ranks, his putative successor Mulla Mansour appears to have come out on top as the new leader, giving hope to the resumption of the stalled dialogue. The peace plan of which these talks are a part will be on the agenda when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif meets President Obama in Washington on October 22. Obama has declared in unequivocal terms that Afghanistan will not be allowed to become a safe haven for terrorists to attack the US again. Brave words, but the question lingers whether they can be backed up by the wherewithal required to ensure that on the ground. Obama would like a complete withdrawal of US and allied troops after a political settlement between the warring sides in Afghanistan. But while such an outcome still seems some way off, if at all attainable, the demonstrated weaknesses and inadequacies of the Afghan forces trained by the US in Kunduz and elsewhere strengthen the hand of the Taliban, reflected in their condemnation of the delayed western pullout, vow to expel all remaining foreign forces, and expressed readiness to engage in a dialogue on certain conditions. These latter include an end to the US-led occupation of Afghanistan. To the original sin of George Bush's invasion of Afghanistan was later added the premature withdrawal of Barack Obama. Bush did not heed sane advice not to get bogged down in the 'graveyard of empires'. Obama, playing to a war weary domestic gallery, adopted what can only be referred to as a 'cut and run' policy (similar remarks apply to his withdrawal from Iraq, also a Bush legacy). Despite a year long review of options in Afghanistan, with the best, most sophisticated war machine's advice, this is all Obama could come up with. The cost to the US in lives and money was huge, but nowhere near the cost to the people of Afghanistan. The country lies ruined, on its knees, unable to sustain itself in military or economic terms. Aid from its 'conqueror' is and will dry up incrementally as the delayed withdrawal unfolds. The Taliban are chuckling at the coming true of what they said after the US invasion and occupation: the enemy may have the watches, but we have the time. Obama's legacy seems destined to turn out a debacle ending in a Taliban victory eventually, bringing us all back to square one. Futile indeed.
Saturday, October 3, 2015
Bilawal attacks After a long hiatus since his political career was launched in Karachi on October 18, 2014, during which the air was full of speculations about differences between him and his father Asif Ali Zardari, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari relaunched his long awaited political journey with an address to a PPP workers' convention in Lahore on Saturday, September 12. What was immediately noticeable about the tone and content of Bilawal's speech was the full frontal attack on the PML-N leadership and government. Forget the controversy about differences between Bilawal and Asif, this assault seemed to take its cue from the recent outbursts of the former president against the government. Bilawal launched into the Sharifs by claiming that the 'friends' of terrorists were ruling the roost in Punjab. Dilating on the change in the PPP's policy, he said there could be no 'reconciliation' with the sympathisers of the extremists or friends of dictators. He said the present rulers only realised the need for an operation against the terrorists after the Peshawar Army Public School bloodbath. Before that, they were attempting to hold talks with the terrorists. Bilawal questioned the attempts to paint the PPP in the colours of being involved in terrorist financing (a reference to Dr Asim Hussain's arrest and the allegations laid at his door) when the party was the first to take up cudgels against the terrorists. He reminded his audience that Operation Zarb-e-Azb actually started in 2008 under a PPP government when operations were launched in Swat and South Waziristan (both acknowledged to be successful in driving the terrorists out of those areas). How, he questioned, could such a party be put in the dock on charges of financing terrorism, and that too at the hands of a government that had betrayed signs of either being sympathetic to, or scared of, the terrorists. Lahore, the bastion of democracy, Bilawal argued, had been handed over to the sympathisers of the terrorists. On the economy, Bilawal lambasted the government for its anti-farmer policies, which were forcing farmers to commit suicide, burn their crops or dump them on the roads because they could not get a fair price for their produce. In contrast to his mother, Benazir Bhutto's attitude to the issue, when she once pledged to buy up farmers' crops in a crisis even if she had to dump them into the sea, the PML-N government was letting farmers die of hunger and rubbing salt into their wounds by diverting the state's resources towards showpiece projects like the metro bus. Bilawal warned the government that the common people would not allow you to rule if you do not solve their problems. He reminded Chief Minister Punjab Shahbaz Sharif of his election campaign pledge to overcome load shedding within six months of coming to power or he would give up his name for some other. Bilawal wanted to know, more than two years down the road, what name the chief minister would like to be called by now. He castigated Shahbaz Sharif as neither a Khadim (servant of the people) nor Aala (great) (a play on the title the chief minister likes to be referred to as: Khadim-e-Aala). Describing the style of governance of the Sharifs as favouring only their friends and loyalists, some pertinent questions raised by Bilawal were why so many institutions were running without heads and others being led by visionless cronies appointed against merit; why the government has destroyed PIA and is unable to even pay the salaries of the workers of Pakistan Steel Mills; why the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) was nowhere to be seen despite corruption being rampant on this government's watch, and why NAB was not investigating the Nandipur project scandal when the cost had risen from Rs 22 billion to 181 billion. Bilawal has come out in Punjab with both fists swinging and all guns blazing. This change of tack was becoming visible of late since the Punjab PPP's long standing argument that the 'reconciliation' policy was damaging the political prospects of the party in the most populous province that was once its main (ideological and political) base were clinched by the recent spate of arrests and cases against the PPP's leaders. What remains to be seen, despite the obvious enthusiasm of the PPP's workers to have their young leader in their midst at last, is whether the new strategy can succeed in overcoming the graph of the PPP's decline in Punjab over many years. If Bilawal's remarks are any guide, it appears the party is groping its way back to its original élan of a party of the poor, peasants and workers. The response of this constituency will be watched with great interest in the days ahead.