Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Business Recorder Editorial May 12, 2016

Panama row resolution COAS General Raheel Sharif has had a one-to-one meeting with Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif before a national security meeting held after six weeks to review the country's law and order situation and the ongoing operations against terrorism. In this exclusive interface, General Raheel advised the PM to resolve the Panama leaks controversy as soon as possible as it was having a negative effect on governance and security. The meeting and its content is being seen by most observers in the context of reported strains between the civilian government and military over the latter's decision to launch an operation in the PML-N's home base of Punjab against criminals and terrorists. Reports now speak of a better atmosphere between the two sides as cooperation and collaboration in the conduct of such operations has been agreed to. The truth of the COAS's argument is beyond question as the deleterious effects of a government and PM on the defensive against accusations and allegations of wrongdoing vis-a-vis offshore companies and wealth are taking their toll of the country's affairs. The PM's two addresses on television, seeking to recount the history of the Sharif family's businesses and how they were damaged over time, not to mention the PM's reiteration of the position that he was neither the owner nor beneficiary of the offshore companies owned by his children, have failed to put the controversy generated by the Panama leaks to rest. On the contrary, if anything, the row between the government and opposition has grown worse. The government responded to the Panama revelations and the demands of the opposition for the PM to resign and present himself for accountability before a judicial commission of inquiry by writing a letter to the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) requesting he set up such a commission, whose broad terms of reference (ToRs) were included in the letter. The opposition in turn, having consulted the Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) and held deliberations amongst all the opposition parties, came out with its own ToRs. In the view of the government, these ToRs are unacceptable on two counts. One, they focus narrowly if not exclusively on the PM and his family, and two, they presume the guilt of the Sharifs and shift the onus of proving their innocence onto their shoulders. These objections have received some support from the SCBA's President Syed Ali Zafar, who was part of the original consultations with the opposition and who helped frame the SCBA's own ToRs that were forwarded to the opposition. Mr Zafar argues that the opposition's ToRs are flawed and need correction. He rightly underlines the need for a consensus between the government and opposition if the desired response in terms of setting up the commission is to be hoped for from the CJP. However, in the same breath Mr Zafar thinks given the fraught state of affairs in the political sphere currently, even a consensus may not be sufficient to persuade the CJP to respond positively. This should be understood as pointing towards the manner in which the government and opposition have been going at each other hammer and tongs since the controversy broke. While better sense and signs of a mature approach are emerging in the sense of both sides expressing their openness to talks, there are no marks for guessing what is likely to emerge all too soon. The opposition has been staging walkouts from both houses of parliament in recent days to pressurise the PM to appear before both houses and clarify his position. This is the added demand of the opposition now. At one level one can have sympathy with this demand since the political style of the Sharifs has tended not to give parliament its due, arguably thereby weakening the aspiration to establish and consolidate parliament's sovereignty in our still fledgling democratic system. When Information Minister Pervez Rashid committed the other day that the PM would indeed appear before the house on Friday (tomorrow), the response of the opposition said it all. The Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly, Syed Khursheed Shah, gave the announcement a guarded welcome while keeping his powder dry by saying they would come running into the Assembly as soon as the PM arrived. The Senate Opposition Leader, Chaudhry Aitzaz Ahsan, greeted the announcement with the plea that the PM should also put in an appearance in the upper house. Some commentators are convinced that despite his appearance and clarifications in parliament, the PM will not be let off the hook by an opposition that smells blood and seeks to take maximum political advantage of the PM's present difficulties. However, unlike the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) of Imran Khan, the PPP does not want to twist the knife so far as to destabilise the whole edifice of democracy. This delicate balancing act will be on show over the next few days, with the PTI's expected fire and brimstone against the government also on display. This scenario does not provide hope for a reasonable resolution of the row, and therefore the uncertainties and imponderables appear to grow with each passing day.

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