Saturday, May 14, 2016

Business Recorder Editorial May 15, 2016

Back to the drawing board The Supreme Court (SC) has rejected the government's request to set up a commission of inquiry into the Panama leaks scandal. In its reply to the letter sent by the government to the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali shortly after Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif's address to the nation on April 22, the SC registrar has cited at least four reasons for the rejection. First, it has been argued that the Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Act 1956, under which the proposed commission would be created, is too limited in scope and any commission set up under its provisions would be toothless and an exercise in futility, attracting in the process nothing but a bad name to the commission. Second, the SC finds the government's terms of reference (ToRs) appended to the letter it received too "wide and open-ended", which may take years to complete. Third, a list of the 'accused' sought to be investigated, along with relevant particulars, is necessary before any opinion can be formed regarding the proposed commission's formation. Fourth, given the limitations of the Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Act 1956, there is a need to enact legislation that allows the creation of an effective commission for the Panama leaks scandal. The SC letter sums up the court's response thus: "Unless such information and particulars are provided and the issue of formation of (the) commission under some proper legislation is reconsidered and resolved, no final response to your letter can be furnished." The responses to the SC's rejection are also of interest. The government seems adamant, unmoved and determined to form the commission at any cost, at least if Information Minister Pervez Rashid's remarks are taken to reflect his government's thinking. As has been the case since the Panama issue broke, he shifted the blame for the SC's rejection entirely onto the opposition for politicising the issue to the point where, presumably, even the SC fears to tread to avoid the risk of being besmirched in the process. In the same breath, he revealed that the government's legal experts were examining the SC's reply and would come up with an appropriate response. He emphasised that the PM would take parliament into confidence on Monday (incidentally shifted from Friday since the PM and his family had to attend Turkish President Erdogan's daughter's wedding over the weekend) and suggest a way forward out of the impasse. The minister did leave the door ajar a crack though by asserting the government was ready to sit with the opposition to hammer out a consensus set of ToRs. The opposition seemed to be crowing over a perceived 'victory', asserting that the SC's rejection had vindicated its stance. Located somewhere between these two extremes was Supreme Court Bar Association (SCBA) President Ali Zafar's take. Zafar said the SC's response had not surprised him. He had been stressing that the government should prepare agreed ToRs in consultation with the opposition instead of sticking to its proposed terms. For this purpose, he offered the good services of the SCBA platform to act as a mediator between the two sides and utilise its legal expertise to resolve the conundrum. Any further delay, the SCBA President felt, would only be to the detriment of the government since it may give rise to the suspicion that the government indeed had something to hide, a perception that could only add to its present sense of discomfort. Now that the government's gambit to involve the superior judiciary in finding some way out of the impasse appears to have fallen flat on its face, what are the prospects ahead? The opposition's (divided) stance has extended from using the Panama leaks issue to send the government as a whole packing (PTI) to allowing the government (and therefore parliament) to serve out its term sans the PM (PPP). Neither demand seems realisable for the foreseeable future. This has forced the opposition, despite its continuing boycott of parliament until rand unless the PM deigns to put in an appearance, to go back to the drawing board to revisit its strategy. A similar 'movement' attends the government's endeavours after the SC's rejection of being dragged into the middle of a fraught and seemingly unending political row. While both protagonists spar and circle each other inside the ring, the alarm is being raised by certain quarters regarding the possibility of an extended impasse creating the conditions once again for a praetorian intervention of some sort. While just about all shades of opinion are agreed that a military coup is out of the question because of its heavy political, economic and strategic costs in today's international climate, all bets are off regarding pressure being brought to bear and incrementally being increased to find a solution in the overall interests of the country, if not the interests of the continuation of the (increasingly questioned) democratic system. As in the past, if some such development occurs, the politicians will have no one to blame but themselves, given the growing perception that they are more interested in winning partisan political advantage rather than addressing seriously the complex task of objectively investigating and rooting out corruption and misdemeanours of hiding wealth abroad through the tool of offshore tax havens and opaque ownership.

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