Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Business Recorder Column Oct 30, 2018

Elections in the mist

Rashed Rahman

The European Union Election Observation Mission (EUEOM) finally revealed its report on the July 25, 2018 general elections in a press conference in Islamabad on October 26, 2018. Dilating on the contents and conclusions of the report, EUEOM chief observer and European Parliament member Michael Gahler said the undue presence of military personnel inside the polling stations limited the civilian ownership of the polls. The military had only been asked to provide security for the distribution of election material but were then allowed to deploy inside as well as outside polling stations by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP). The deployment was 370,000 army personnel as compared to 70,000 in 2013. In addition, 450,000 police officers were deployed. The EUEOM report noted that the code of conduct for security personnel issued by the ECP on July 6, 2018 increased the powers and role of the security forces posted inside and outside polling stations, including the provision of a parallel structure to report irregularities if the presiding officer failed to take action. The report adds that while a secure environment for voters, candidates and polling staff is essential, the deployment of a large number of soldiers and their presence inside the polling stations with expanded powers could have resulted in voter intimidation. Various EUEOM interlocutors raised concerns about the role of the military inside polling stations, particularly their interventions during the vote count and transmission of results. In a few cases, the report said, it was the security official rather than the presiding officer who was in charge.
The ECP informed the EUEOM that the decision to deploy the army personnel outside and inside the polling stations was based on requests by the political parties. The latter however informed the EUEOM that they had only agreed to the army being deployed outside. The ECP could not give any reasons why it deviated from its original plan. This issue also needs to be looked at in the context of the report’s finding that the pre-electoral environment was marred by allegations of influence by the military-led establishment on the electoral process and the active role of the judiciary in political affairs, including through its suo motu jurisdiction.
Numerous reports, the EUEOM says, depicted the armed forces and security agencies pulling the strings to persuade candidates of anti-establishment parties to switch their allegiance or run as independents, all of which contributed to the splitting of the votes and influencing the results. Media outlets and journalists suffered undue restrictions on freedom of expression, leading to widespread self-censorship. Several events prior to and during the election campaign pointed to the shrinking space for free speech and genuine pluralism.
The report noted overall a range of state actors taking resolute measures well before the elections to control the public narrative and silence any debate that might challenge the role of the military or promote civilian supremacy. The emergence and acceptance of extremist parties as participants in the election process was cause for serious concern, the report pointed out. In this regard, 925 extremist candidates were included in the final list. Several reports commented on the ECP’s implementation of procedures on candidate nomination and acceptance of these candidates.
The EUEOM pointed out the blurred boundary between the role of the superior courts on the one hand and the ECP on the other in matters related to the electoral process, arguing no election can be called into question except by an election tribunal operating under the auspices of the ECP. Despite this, the courts were petitioned and operated as a de facto parallel system of electoral justice to that of the ECP. The ECP’s voter information and education campaign before the polls proved too little too late. The report recommends amendment of the Elections Act to include voter education at every stage of the process.
Overall the report observed a notable lack of equality of opportunity (i.e. the absence of a level playing field). Influential landowners and extended families, the so-called ‘electables’, were able to generate large political appeal and (ample) financial resources to win (as usual, nothing new there).
The EUEOM had made 50 recommendations for the conduct of the polls. Of these, 38 were reportedly implemented. Now, after the polls and in the light of their observation of the electoral process, the EUEOM has put forward 30 more recommendations to improve the process in future. Of these later 30 recommendations, eight have been prioritised by the mission.
1.     Review the Constitution and Election Act to ensure restrictions on candidates are not subject to vague, moral and arbitrary criteria.
2.     Revise the Election Act, Election Rules and Codes of Conduct to ensure the ECP’s transparency.
3.     To contribute to 2. above, ECP should hold regular meetings with election stakeholders.
4.     Guarantee civilian ownership by limiting the presence of the security forces to outside polling stations only.
5.     Review the legal framework for the mainstream and social media to ensure compliance with international standards of freedom of expression.
6.     Introduce affirmative measures for improved representation of women on general seats.
7.     Adopt a unified electoral roll by removing the need for any supplementary voters lists.
8.     Establish in law national and international observation ensuring full access, including the media, to all stages of the electoral process.
While these recommendations are offered in the spirit of improving our electoral process, they still constitute a ‘soft’ critique of the flaws in our electoral system in general, and the 2018 elections in particular. The underlining of the presence of military personnel, ostensibly on security duty, inside and outside polling stations resurrects and confirms the reservations expressed just after the polls by opposition political parties and objective commentators regarding the elections being fair, free and transparent. Although the EUEOM report found no evidence of polling staff being turned out by uniformed personnel, they did not comment on the video evidence (admittedly scanty but telling) on the social media showing polling staff sitting to one side and soldiers counting votes. The casting of votes seemed on the whole fine, minor flaws notwithstanding. However, once the Result Transmission System (RTS) ‘broke down’, there was no telling what went on in the manual counting.
This is not a minor issue, since the theory has been doing the rounds after the polls that this military ‘intervention’ in select constituencies was meant to engineer a result to the liking of the establishment. If so, the authors of this plan should realize that these revelations challenge the legitimacy of the PTI-led coalition government. It is a weak coalition because, alleged gerrymandering notwithstanding, the PTI was left just short of a simple majority. This necessitated the forging of a weak, lopsided coalition government including some smaller parties and the ubiquitous ‘electables’. Such a construct allows for toppling in case of any disagreement between the PTI and the establishment by the simple expedient of withdrawal of support by these latter day ‘allies’ of the PTI.
If the result of the seven decade old struggle for democracy in Pakistan is to end up with manipulated elections to suit one or the other agenda rather than reflect the free and unfettered expression of the people’s will reflected in their choice of elected representatives, it is a sobering moment and thought about how this reversion to ‘controlled’ democracy will play out in the future.


Business Recorder Editorial Oct 30, 2018

Realignment in the Muslim world

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s discreet visit to Oman on the invitation of Sultan Qaboos may be the latest development in the realignment taking place before our eyes in the Muslim world. The visit was the first by any Israeli prime minister in over two decades. In 1994, then Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin visited Oman and acting prime minister Shimon Peres visited in 1996, heralding the opening of trade representative offices in both countries. In October 2000, Oman closed the offices after the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada against the occupying Israelis. This early opening between Oman and Israel came in the wake of the 1993 Oslo Accords that laid down the principle of a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through a two-state solution. However, the years that followed revealed Israeli duplicity and the increasing repression of the Palestinians agitating for the implementation of this principle of the Oslo Accords. It was only when the Palestinians rose against their Israeli tormentors in the second intifada that the hopes for a resolution faded and Oman retreated from its opening up to Israel. Since that time, and particularly since the ascent to power of Netanyahu in Israel and Donald Trump in the US, all the hopes invested in the Oslo Accords faded. Netanyahu has ruthlessly expanded Israeli settlements in Occupied Palestinian territory in the West Bank and turned the Gaza Strip into the biggest open air prison for the Palestinians there. In these circumstances, why has Oman opened its doors to Israel again? To seek an answer to this question, one has to admit that the Arab world almost without exception has in practice abandoned the Palestinian cause, lip service notwithstanding. Oman may be interested in trade, particularly the high tech and weaponry that Israel, with the unstinting support of Washington, has been able to develop to dazzle the world. Its foreign minister Yousuf bin Alawi has therefore made it clear that his country is not acting as a mediator between Israelis and Palestinians. Currently, only two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan, have full diplomatic ties with Israel. But the bulk of the rest of the Arab and Muslim world has increasingly looked not only spineless against Israel’s cruelties visited upon the Palestinians, but of late more and more inclined to explore openings to the Zionist entity.

Pakistan too has flirted with Israel in recent years. Under the Musharraf regime, then foreign minister Khurshid Kasuri met an Israeli deputy prime minister in Istanbul, but a hostile domestic public opinion put paid to any further contacts in this direction. On October 27, 2018, a furore broke out in the electronic media when reports of an Israeli plane landing in Pakistan began doing the rounds. Furious denials by our government did not entirely quell concerns about what exactly was going on. There may be a lobby in Pakistan that is motivated to explore possible openings with Israel for three reasons. One, India’s growing friendly relations with Israel and its purchase of state-of-the-art weaponry from the latter may have persuaded this lobby to not be left behind and lay the groundwork discreetly for contacts with Israel with a view to the advanced weapons bonanza that may follow. Two, relations with Israel may be viewed as a possible conduit to improving Pakistan’s strained relations with the US. Three, implied in these moves is a tacit abandonment of the Palestinian cause. This abandonment that seems to be gathering pace in the Arab and wider Muslim world unfortunately sees the Palestinian cause as hopeless by now. Part of this development may be the aftermath of the 2011 Arab Spring, which led to regime change in many Arab countries, principally (after US-led western interventions and invasions) Libya and Iraq. The western juggernaut of regime change was only stopped in its tracks in Syria, thanks to Russia, Iran and the Lebanese Shia militia Hezbollah. But the Syrian conflict brought into sharp focus the sectarian divide and rivalry between Shia Iran and the largely Sunni Arab world. With hindsight, despite its progress towards regime change in the Arab world being stymied in Syria, the Arab Spring has metamorphosed into co-opting the Arab and parts of the Muslim world into Israel’s corner because of antipathy towards Iran. Pakistan has to be careful to play its cards in its own interests in this intricate minuet rolling out and while guarding against being sucked into the sectarian maelstrom unfolding in the region.

Saturday, October 27, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial October 27, 2018

Realistic expectations

Prime Minister (PM) Imran Khan’s address to the nation after returning from Saudi Arabia was meant to proffer the good news that a $ six billion package had been secured from the Kingdom, comprising $ three billion to be deposited to boost our depleted foreign exchange reserves and the rest in the form of deferred payment for oil imports. Had the PM confined himself to just this breakthrough, his address would have come across as statesmanlike. However, Imran Khan being Imran Khan could not let this (or any other) opportunity go to reiterate his signature themes. Describing the package as a big relief, the PM said this would go some way towards reducing our dependence on the IMF. Expectations are that the forthcoming visits of Imran Khan to China and Malaysia may help bring in another $ 2-5 billion, which would further reduce the need for a bigger IMF loan that the PM argued would put Pakistan in a stronger position to negotiate IMF conditionalities. Since the IMF’s prescriptions lay down stringent structural reforms and austerity (particularly dampening demand), a smaller loan from the IMF retains the hope that the government will not have to accept conditionalities that would place a heavier burden on the common man. The question of what Pakistan had committed in return for the Saudi package was not answered in the PM’s address, except perhaps a reference to our playing a mediatory role in the Yemen conflict. Our parliament had passed a resolution during the previous government’s tenure against sending troops to Yemen to help the Saudi-led alliance against the Houthis. This was the gelled wisdom of our legislators, who saw the Yemen quagmire as a dangerous playground likely to suck Pakistan into a sectarian nightmare. Mediation may sound like a good idea, but given the hard positions on both sides of the conflict, this sounds more like the triumph of hope over reality. The unanswered question of the terms and conditions agreed to by the PM to garner the package continues to agitate the PML-N, PPP and ANP, who have all demanded the details be revealed, preferably to parliament. Former senate chairman Raza Rabbani also suggested that if some details were sensitive, an in-camera session could be held. The government’s response is awaited. However, given the PM’s diatribe during his address against the previous two governments of the PPP and PML-N, whom Imran Khan once again held responsible for plunging the country into a serious financial crisis by taking foreign loans recklessly and allegedly siphoning off huge funds through corruption, it seems highly unlikely that the government’s response to the opposition’s calls for transparency will be heard. The opposition also resented Imran Khan’s well-worn narrative about putting all corrupt leaders in jail in an unrelenting drive (No NRO, the PM reiterated).

The impact of the good news on the market was positive, with both the stock market and the rupee rising. Certainly if more friendly countries bail out Pakistan and the rest is taken care of by the IMF, the fiscal space opening up will restore the government’s finances to safety. However, there is good reason for asking the government to help lower the unrealistic expectations from this government that were the result of its rhetoric while in opposition. For example, the schemes to build five million houses and create 10 million jobs should be revisited after the real fiscal space emerges. Even if incoming finances provide the cushion the government is aiming at, these two projects alone require more billions than are at hand. On these issues, the government’s interests may be better served by trimming such targets to something approaching realism, based on the level of financing available. Container-top rhetoric cannot serve as policy once the PTI has assumed the reins of power and is charged with actual management of the economy and the country.

Friday, October 26, 2018

Business Recorder Editorial Oct 26, 2018

Increasingly controversial NAB

Disquiet is growing against the National Accountability Bureau’s (NAB’s) shenanigans. This has by now reached the highest judicial forum, the Supreme Court (SC). A three-member bench of the SC has asked why NAB is becoming ‘politicised’, practicing ‘double standards’, indulging in discriminatory conduct in different cases, and resorting at the drop of a hat to plea bargains even in cases that do not merit it. Justice Qazi Faez Isa remarked during the hearing of a bail application of a section officer of the Sindh information Department why NAB’s policy in investigating corruption cases is not uniform, as in some cases it is putting in all its efforts but in some other cases not doing enough. Justice Isa noted that billions of rupees were recovered from the residence of Mushtaq Ahmed Raisani, the then finance secretary Balochistan, but NAB struck a plea bargain deal with him and in fact managed to get him bail from the trial court despite the SC having denied him bail two months earlier. Justice Isa went on to argue that NAB should set a uniform principle for dealing with corruption cases instead of dealing with every case according to its discretion. Head of the bench Justice Gulzar Ahmed said NAB had shown no performance except allowing plea bargains to accused persons. The honourable Justice asked a senior NAB official to point out any case in which it had actually recovered any amount. Justice Gulzar pointed out that billions of rupees had been spent on NAB but nobody knew the fate of corruption cases. NAB, Justice Gulzar concluded, is only creating anguish and misery for everyone. In the instant case being heard, the NAB Additional Prosecutor General could not name the prosecutor except to say he was from Karachi. This case is not the first time the SC has taken umbrage at NAB’s conduct. Last month, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Mian Saqib Nisar noted NAB was creating lacunae in cases, which resulted in acquittal of the accused. The CJP had also expressed anger at the misbehaviour of NAB investigation officers during interrogation of the accused.

The SC has echoed the criticism being heaped on NAB’s head from more than one direction, as well as from the public. Actually, it needs perhaps to be remembered that NAB was set up by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf, essentially to ‘nab’ politicians. Musharraf may be long gone, but his creature still stalks the land. The criticisms highlighted by the SC regarding the arbitrariness of approach, discriminatory treatment in similar cases, presumption of guilt of the accused (which flies in the face of the old established jurisprudential principle of ‘innocent until proved guilty’), mistreatment of the accused (e.g. presenting those arrested before the media, parading retired professors and the former Vice Chancellor of Punjab University in handcuffs), and NAB’s penchant for striking plea bargain deals at its discretion have been around for quite some time. However, they seem to be getting worse, given the climate attending the PTI government’s anti-corruption crusade. Criticism has also been levelled at the chairman NAB’s seemingly unchecked discretionary powers, in the light of which any deviation from the norm of conducting corruption investigations leads to charges of a political witch-hunt. The need therefore presents itself logically of reframing NAB’s mandate in a manner that eliminates arbitrariness, restores due process and the rights of the accused enshrined in our laws and constitution, and creates a mechanism to provide checks on the chairman’s and NAB’s discretion. It is in the interests of the government for NAB not only to be carrying out but being seen to be carrying out its mandate in a transparent, regulated by law manner. Otherwise the charges of political motivation behind many of NAB’s actions may eventually rebound on the government itself, making it harder for it to maintain its professed impartiality in the anti-corruption campaign.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Business Recorder Column Oct 23, 2018

Gathering storm

Rashed Rahman

The political landscape is evolving in a direction that spells trouble for the incumbent government and its alleged establishment patrons. The PPP held a People’s Lawyers Forum (PLF) convention in Islamabad on October 21, 2018, over which former president and PPP co-chairperson Asif Ali Zardari presided. After the convention, during a press conference, Zardari lambasted the PTI government as ‘incompetent’, predicted its inability to complete its five year tenure, and called upon the opposition political parties to unite against the incumbents. (No one, it seems, thought of asking him what would follow if the government fell, i.e. did its ‘patrons’ have a Plan B up their sleeve?)
In answer to the question that lies at the heart of the inability of the powerful opposition to unite against the PTI government so far, Zardari vented his well-known anger at Nawaz Sharif over the cases the PML-N had instituted against him. Dilating on Nawaz Sharif’s current spate of troubles, he said Sharif was getting what he deserved. However, despite this, he said, the possibility of a meeting with Nawaz Sharif could not be ruled out. But he fended off a question whether the PPP would become part of any move to dislodge the government by saying that will be decided when the time comes.
Dilating on the PTI government’s ‘incompetence’, particularly where the economy is concerned, Zardari defended the track record of the 2008-13 PPP government by arguing that they had inherited similar problems to the PTI government from the Musharraf regime, which by then had exhausted its international goodwill and inwards flow of aid. Despite that, he argued, the PPP government had not burdened the poor and framed futuristic policies (including CPEC), which the PML-N subsequent government nullified.
Calling Imran Khan the ‘prime minister-select’ (a sobriquet the PPP, including its chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, seem to have latched onto), Zardari said he did not attach any expectations to him since he obviously could not run the government or even his own party. Zardari pointed to the anomaly that Imran Khan’s illegal Banigala residence was being regularised while the common people’s houses were being demolished. He went on to deny that he had benefitted from Musharraf’s NRO, saying Nawaz Sharif and the MQM may have but he himself was acquitted by the courts in all the cases against him. In any case he dismissed Imran Khan’s talk of an NRO as a political stunt.
Another awkward question persuaded Zardari to trash National Accountability Bureau (NAB) head Justice (retired) Javed Iqbal by saying although he was part of his appointment, people with small minds find it difficult to digest even a little power accorded to them and go haywire. He contrasted this behaviour with his transfer of all powers to parliament when he was president.
The PLF convention adopted a series of resolutions, chief amongst which were calling for the right to appeal against verdicts of the Supreme Court in suo motu cases, change in the process of judges’ appointments, and condemnation of NAB for targetting the opposition. They also vowed to defend provincial autonomy granted under the 18th Amendment and expressed grave concern at the interminable delays in the justice system. They reiterated the demand for the setting up of a constitutional court, presumably to relieve the existing superior judiciary of this burden to allow them to whittle away the mountain of pending cases. PLF critiqued the PTI government brought to power through a dubious electoral process as an ‘economic disaster’. PLF pressed the government to eschew its aggressive confrontational style with its political rivals and called upon it to turn towards a consultative (therefore inclusive) process with all stakeholders. This may appear to be wishing for the moon since the PTI’s political style has yet to transcend its ‘container-type’ hype. Last but not least, the PLF reiterated to the Chief Justice of Pakistan its long-standing demand for an early hearing and redressal of the injustice inflicted in the Zulfikar Ali Bhutto case.
What the PPP is saying holds a lot of water. In fact, despite its relative marginalisation on the national political scene and being confined to Sindh alone since 2013, in the current cut and thrust of parliamentary politics, the PPP comes across as the only reassuringly mature, calm and rational party in contrast with the foaming at the mouth of the PTI and the retaliatory vitriol of the PML-N. The speeches by PML-N chief Shahbaz Sharif (produced by an order of the Speaker), the PPP’s Syed Khursheed Shah and Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry in the National Assembly the other day were a study in contrasts, with Shah outshining the other two by a mile and a half.
The PPP may be the calmest, the PTI the most abusive, the PML-N vitriolic, but what does all this palaver boil down to? Essentially the people (especially the poor) are silent spectators to this right-right (or at best -centre) struggle between the main political players, with the people’s only ‘benefit’ the storm of inflation that has hit them since the PTI government took office. The government’s raising of energy prices (with more to come) has taken its toll of the pockets of the poor and common citizens. With its dithering and virtually daily flip-flops, the PTI government cannot escape responsibility for this storm, particularly since the uncertainty surrounding going to the IMF or being able to secure assistance from friendly countries and avoid the stranglehold of the IMF caused the stock market and the rupee to crash. Every item of daily use, with food at its core, has gone up in the first two months of this government, with arguably more pain to follow. The mood on the street therefore (and in the by-polls) seems to be turning against the PTI, and its assurances that all will be well a few months down the road have few takers.
The question has been asked why Pakistan cannot free itself of IMF programmes (the current one reportedly is the 23rd since 1958). While traditional economists point to the inherent need of a developing economy for imports of plant, machinery and raw materials for the industrialisation effort as indispensable, so far Pakistan’s economy has failed despite this to have adequate export surpluses that could eventually surpass our unavoidable level of imports. The eternal unfulfilled hope that this model of development would eventually lead us on the path trodden by South Korea, the Asian Tigers, etc, may be rooted in our failure to sustain the industrialisation drive and move it up a notch from traditional manufacturing to today’s high-tech products that have transformed the world economy.
But even if by some miracle Pakistan were able to overcome its hobbled economic state a la the developing world’s success stories, would this resolve (for us as much as the rest of the developing world) the profound and so far unanswered questions related to the structure of the 21st century global economy, Pakistan’s place in it and inability to overcome the extraction-of-surplus structures that have it and most of the contemporary world in their grip, to the benefit of the leading western powers led by the US?