Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pakistan: Events of yesterday

The country is thrust into deeper uncertainty. Tuesday, January 15, was a day of high drama and an interesting, if not intriguing, coincidence in Islamabad. Only on the night before Dr Tahirul Qadri had arrived in the heart of the Capital at the head of a massive rally seeking instant dissolution of parliament, to be followed by drastic electoral reforms. His rally was not in millions that he had promised yet it was big enough and apparently charged enough, to jolt the residents of the city out of their usual nonchalance about national politics. But what really made the day singularly different from any before were the proceedings in the Supreme Court. During the course of hearing of a petition about electoral reforms Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry made an observation that the general election should be held on time - to be interpreted by some as an indirect warning to Dr Qadri not to fiddle with the electoral process and election schedule as mandated by the constitution. We don't know whether or not Dr Qadri felt the heat of the CJP's observation. But the apex court's order in another case thereafter for the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf along with other co-accused sat so well with Dr Qadri and his fellow-marchers that it sent the entire rally into a trance. As soon as Qadri heard the Supreme Court order he ended his speech, announcing that 'half of my mission has been accomplished, the rest would be over by tomorrow'. Undoubtedly, to those who keep finding some kind of a 'conspiracy' behind Dr Tahirul Qadri's out-of-season march on the Capital to create chaotic conditions justifying intervention by those who open their innings uttering words 'my dear countrymen'. They also cite Dr Qadri's comment of the night before when he prefixed the present governments and their chief executives as also the president of the country with the word 'former'. Was he in know of the 'conspiracy' to wrap up the present democratic dispensation. And if he was, was he also a partner in it, there were some conjectures? But seen independently and objectively, there is just no connection between these two narratives, except that they happen to have come in train. These situations - Dr Qadri's march on Islamabad, Supreme Court's observation on his call for new Election Commission of Pakistan and the same court's order to arrest the prime minister and others for their alleged involvement in the Rental Power Plants scam - could be defused before they came to the cusp. Dr Qadri's march should not have been entertained by the authorities. If the Punjab government and its federal counterpart and their intelligence agencies had failed to figure out the purpose of Dr Qadri's long march especially as he had left no one in doubt he is out to disrupt the ongoing election preparations the Capital's administration miserably failed to handle it. From the word go it was on the defensive, retreating before the marchers till they reached the D Chowk. Here is a man who wants to impose his will by force and thus derail the electoral process so painstakingly stitched up and the governments allow him to do so by holding that it is every Pakistani's right to hold demonstration at the D Chowk in front of the parliament. It was a big mistake; he should have seen the difference between a lawful demonstration and the one being held in violation of the Constitution. By conceding him the facility of reaching the parliament without much of hindrance the authorities tend to convey that whosoever can manage a crowd of some thousand protestors in front of the parliament has the right to subvert the will of other 179.9 million Pakistanis. As to Dr Qadri's take on the poor quality of political leadership one has no beef; yes it lacks all that is expected of it and it's not there. But it is not for Dr Qadri to decide who should be elected, let the people make their choice through a fair, free and transparent election. That Imran Khan's PTI has a strong feeling that it is being overshadowed by Qadri's game is a strong reality that has translated into former cricket captain's 7-point agenda. Addressing a press conference, he demanded, among other things, President Zardari's immediate resignation. There are few takers for an imminent change in the leader of the house and jurists maintain that the government can employ delaying tactics that may well lead to the natural demise of the present parliament on 16 March 2013. Many argue that under the NAB Ordinance, arrests can only be made if investigation is complete and the person has been found guilty. The NAB investigators have not finished their job as yet. The court has ordered them to finish it in 24 hours and then proceed "without hesitation." The ball is in NAB's court. They were so far avoiding it. Now they will either say the PM has not been found guilty or, if found guilty, order his arrest. In the meantime, the President has called a meeting of its coalition partners in Karachi and it seems unlikely that even the PML (N) would support a change in the status quo, however superficial, at this late stage, a scant 55 days prior to the scheduled dissolution of the federal and provincial parliaments. Greater the crisis, more the need for dialogue. The situation underscores the need for reflecting deeply and mulling over the events of yesterday in particular.

Another premier gone?

WHEN RAJA Pervez Ashraf was elected as Pakistan’s prime minister following Yousaf Raza Gilani’s ouster, his tainted reputation preceded him in the media and political circles. Notoriously referred to as ‘Raja Rental’ for allegedly accepting kickbacks for rental power projects (RPPs) as the water and power minister, Ashraf’s ascent to the position of chief executive was widely criticised. There were apprehensions that he, too, will refuse to follow the Supreme Court’s order to write the Swiss letter regarding President Zardari’s graft cases and also pave way for his own political demise. However, it’s not the Swiss letter than has taken Ashraf down; it’s his alleged involvement in the corruption pertaining to the RPP contracts. The Supreme Court on Tuesday ordered for the arrest of 16 people, including the premier, involved in the RPP cases. The SC’s ruling comes as yet another blow to the PPP-led government, which has teetered on the verge of collapse several times during its tenure. While it has faced several challenges related to governance, perhaps the greatest hurdles it has found in its path have been at the behest of Pakistan’s activist judiciary. The PPP lost its premier, Yousaf Raza Gillani, to the Swiss letter case and its US ambassador Hussain Haqqani to the Memogate case. And now it appears that its second chief executive is also on his way out. Sceptics, however, are questioning the timing of this ruling, which came while Tahirul Qadri’s long march was in full swing in Islamabad. In fact, when Qadri announced this development during his speech, his supporters, who had earlier clashed with the police on Tuesday, celebrated by chanting “long live the Supreme Court”. Many suspect that the SC, which has been accused of being in cahoots with the military, strategically timed the ruling to coincide with the march. The armed forces have been rumoured to support Qadri, who had been vociferously pressing for the dismissal of the incumbent federal and provincial governments. Hours after his deadline for the government’s ouster expired, the judicial verdict corroborated allegations that the “invisible hand” of the military is possibly propping up the Sufi cleric’s campaign. So, how will the government now manage this new crisis? Chances are that the resilient PPP will prepare to elect another premier, just two months in advance of the parliamentary elections. But irrespective of the government’s next move, it is very important that the latter is given a chance to complete its tenure for the sake of democracy.

Pakistan: Jaws of conspiracy snapping shut?

Tuesday’s events have destabilised the political system and the country as a whole. First came Maulana Tahirul Qadri’s ultimatum of Monday night that the governments should dissolve the Assemblies and go home. He gave a deadline of 11:00 am Tuesday to carry out his ‘directive’. As it turned out, the logic of ground realities ensured that 11:00 am came and went and nothing stirred except the agitated supporters of Qadri in the rally in Islamabad. Qadri’s address to the rally was interrupted by another bombshell. The Supreme Court (SC) ordered the arrest of Prime Minister (PM) Raja Pervez Ashraf and others in the Rental Power Producers (RPP) case. The order is questionable on a number of grounds. First and foremost, the order was passed on the basis of a preliminary investigation report presented by NAB before the SC, which carried a rider that the recommendations of the report were subject to legal advice, which the court did not wait for. Nor did the bench headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry wait for the lawyers of the government and NAB, who were not able to appear on the day, to present their side of the story. The order therefore is flawed on the benchmark of an incomplete investigation, arrest orders without any conviction by a court of law, arbitrary, and ex parte. Although the order evoked immense joy amongst the rally participants and Qadri went so far as to say that half the work was done, the other half would follow the next day, it also aroused a great deal of anxiety, not only amongst the supporters of the government, but across the political spectrum. Criticism of the court’s order followed, with great suspicion being voiced about the legality of the order as well as its timing. The SC has unfortunately, through this step, opened itself up to a new controversy, which cannot be good for the standing of the judiciary. Whether the order was passed coincidentally at the exact moment Qadri and his followers were hurling all kinds of demands and threats against the political system on Constitution Avenue in Islamabad or, as some critics have said, was playing to the gallery by the SC, we leave to the imagination of the reader. In the RPP hearing in question, the NAB chairman was castigated and issued a contempt notice on the grounds that NAB had misused the name of the SC to dismiss two NAB investigators in charge of the case. Further, the NAB chairman was made responsible for putting the name of the PM and others named to be arrested on the Exit Control List and told he would be held responsible if any of these people left the country. This development produced its toll. The Karachi stock market crashed by 525 points. The SC’s order for arresting the PM provoked angry, sometimes violent protests in interior Sindh, including exchange of firing in Hyderabad between protestors and shopkeepers, blocking of the National Highway, large parts of Karachi shut down, and the country braced with bated breath and in shock for further trouble. Imran Khan joined the MQM’s chorus in support of Qadri’s agenda, with the rider that the PTI would prefer change through the ballot box, whereas Qadri claimed that his 40,000 supporters at the Islamabad rally were sufficient to prove that the government had lost its mandate and should immediately go. Not only the conspiracy minded, even ordinary citizens are forced to speculate that this series of developments coming thick and fast on each other’s heels could not be a coincidence, and that suspicion centres on a deep rooted conspiracy to abort the upcoming elections that are to be held under the constitution in the light of the 18th Amendment, which enjoins the treasury and opposition to come to a consensus on a Chief Election Commissioner and a caretaker setup that would be non-partisan and conduct free, fair and transparent elections. The historic nature of the moment is not lost on those with a sense of history. It may not be an accident therefore that these ‘concerted’ moves appear just as the country is poised to stabilise the polity through an agreed procedure and move on to a relatively consolidated democratic system. The actors up front are obvious: Qadri, MQM (half in half out), Imran Khan (in but with a difference), and sundry others who either do not have a stake in the present dispensation or want a shortcut to power. What is not obvious are the possible hidden hands orchestrating these moves and playing the situation like piano keys. This discordant melody can and will be exposed only in the fullness of time. Meanwhile, the advice to all citizens is: fasten your seat belts.

Pakistan: Crash of stocks

The country’s stock market crashed on Tuesday after the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Prime Minister Raja Pervez Ashraf in the famous rental power plants case that surfaced corruption of billions of rupees at a time when the PM was the minister in-charge of water and power sector. The decision came in a petition by PML-Q lawmaker Faisal Saleh Hayat who alleged wide ranging corruption against Raja Pervez Ashraf. The Supreme Court, on March 30, directed NAB to proceed against ministers of water and power from 2006 The NAB, on April 20, submitted before the SC that it issued arrest warrants for 16 accused including the chief executive of the country. The prime minister is accused of taking kickbacks in rental power projects and is also accused of buying property abroad from money earned through corrupt means. As for Pakistani stocks, the Karachi Stock Exchange 100 shares index fell by 570 points in floor trading in the day soon after the SC decision. This is the same KSE that touched thee 100 Index hovering around the unprecedented level of 16,250 points only a week or fortnight before. Was it mere coincidence or a well thought out plan, the fact remains that the verdict was proclaimed when the Tehrik-i-Minhajul Quran chief Allama Dr Tahirul Qadri was just concluding his address in Islamabad after the huge long march originating from Lahore. Soon after, the KSE dropped by around 3.5 per cent to 16,084 points down by 525.29 points from the Monday’s close. Rupee also lost its value in parity with dollar to sell at more than Rs99 for the first time in the country’s history – a historic low. This low, causing from both the loss of stocks and the currency is a natural outcome of an economy is also a dismal record of the tenure of the Pakistan People’s Party-led government which failed in reforming the national economy. Even remittances of $48bn by overseas Pakistanis during this period have not boosted the rupee or lend strength to the stock market. The external sector is also under a similar pressure as the balance of payments position continues to deteriorate on the heels of rising current account gap and heavy debt payments in addition to foreign exchange reserves falling to a little above than $13 billion. The government’s failure in augmenting the recovery of federal revenue is a further addition to the list of failures in meeting different economic targets. The whole scene portrays a grim economic picture because the government more or less wasted the IMF standby arrangement of $13.1 billion to reform the economy by introducing reforms to bring down inflation, repairing macroeconomic regime by withdrawing subsidies and bringing other reforms.

Khomeini’s Granddaughter On Iran’s ‘Critical Situation,’ Sanctions, Facebook

According to Zahra Eshraghi, whose grandfather, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, founded the Islamic republic, Iran "is on the edge of the precipice.” Eshraghi -- who is married to Mohammad Reza Khatami, the brother of former reformist President Mohammad Khatami -- recently gave an interview to the Iranian website Anarpress and said, “Everyone knows that the country is facing a critical situation.” She said politicians should find a solution quickly to the crisis the country is facing, though it may be too late. “Maybe they thought we could act independently and that we don’t need the world,” she said. “We should be up front. As much as [the West is] likely to need us, we need them." The 49-year-old mother of two also talked about the negative impact sanctions are having on the Islamic republic. “For example, Tehran’s air pollution,” she said, “for which the sanctions -- and the bad gasoline that is being used – are to blame. This pollution should be considered a silent death, meaning that we in Tehran are breathing poison every day.” Eshraghi said the country is in a “red” – or high -- alert situation. Cars and traffic are the main contributors to Tehran's critical level of air pollution and Western sanctions on fuel imports have forced the country to rely on locally produced gasoline, which is said to be more polluting. Asked whether she feels hopeful about Iran’s future, she answered that only reforms can save the country from the crisis it is facing. “If these people remain with the same thinking, nothing will change because this way of thinking does not want Iran to progress and bring peace and calm,” she said. “The only way for them is to accept reforms.”Eshraghi, an active Facebook user with a large following, also said she has heard that the social-networking site will soon be unblocked by the regime. “Only now [authorities] have understood that [such a] platform cannot be harmful,” she said, adding that she has learned much from her interactions with young Iranians on Facebook. The social-networking site is a good tool for gauging public sentiment, she said. “From the number of likes and comments I get on pictures I post, I can understand whether that individual is, at the time, popular or not," she said. "For example, I posted pictures of Hassan Khomeini (Khomeini's prominent grandson) and [Mohammad Khatami]. I’ve told them many times that their pictures received few likes, and it shows that their popularity has decreased.” Elsewhere in the interview, Eshraghi, who under Khatami headed the youth department of the Interior Ministry, criticized President Mahmud Ahmadinejad for preventing the work of nongovernmental organizations, which had flourished under his predecessor. She said she and many other people in the NGO field were forced to stop their activities after Ahmadinejad came to power. Eshraghi also said that because of the vetting of election candidates by the powerful Guardians Council, reformists cannot introduce any strong candidates. "[Reformists] cannot present anyone because there is a filter called the Guardians Council," she said. Asked about pressure by the regime on former President Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, she said Khomeini once referred to him as “a pillar” of the 1979 revolution. “I’ve heard [Khomeini] tell [Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei], “When you and [Rafsanjani] work hand in hand together, the revolution will be. And when you separate from each other, the revolution will disintegrate.” Rafsanjani, whose influence has significantly diminished in recent years, has come under criticism for refusing to speak out against the opposition Green Movement. Rafsanjani's daughter, Fazezeh, is currently in jail and his son, Mehdi Hashemi, is free on bail.

Pakistan: Military, Supreme Court working together against govt

Fawad Chaudhry – aide to Prime Minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf – said on Tuesday there was “no doubt” the country’s powerful military and Supreme Court were working together to topple the government. Chaudhry was speaking to Reuters after the Supreme Court ordered the arrest of Ashraf in the Rental Power Plants case. PM Ashraf – popularly known as Raja Rental – was accused of receiving kickbacks in the rental power projects and of buying property in London from the money earned through corruption in various scams. The Express Tribune approached political parties for their comments on this recent development. Awami National Party “It’s an order from the highest court and will be obeyed but our [government’s] legal advisors are trying to find if Ashraf enjoys immunity in this case,” ANP Senator Haji Muhammad Adeel told The Express Tribune. Expressing doubts over the timing of the court order and Tahirul Qadri’s long march, Adeel said he fails to understand why SC decided to issue the verdict now when the country is experiencing political turbulence. Pakistan Peoples Party While speaking to Express News, PPP leader Aitzaz Ahsan said Ashraf will remain the prime minster even if he is imprisoned. “Ashraf will be the premier until a no-trust motion is moved against him,” he said. Muttahida Qaumi Movement MQM leader Wasay Jalil said it is premature to comment on the issue as they don’t have details apart from what has been broadcast. Jalil also said they have not received any formal invite for the allies meeting scheduled to be held in Karachi today.

Pakistan: Countering Militancy in PATA

International Crisis Group’s latest report, assesses the impact of the military-led response to extremist violence on PATA’s security, society and economy. More than three years after military operations sought to oust Islamist extremists, the region remains extremely volatile. The military’s continued control over the governance and administration of the region and the state’s failure to equip the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) police with the tools they need to tackle extremist violence lies at the heart of security and governance challenges. “While the militants continue to present the main physical threat, the military’s poorly conceived counter-insurgency strategies and failure to restore responsive and accountable civilian administration are proving counter-productive”, says Samina Ahmed, Crisis Group’s South Asia Project Director. “Neither the federal nor the provincial government is fully addressing the security concerns of residents”. Although some serious efforts have been made to enhance police capacity, they remain largely insufficient, and the KPK force is still not properly trained or equipped and lacks accountability. The larger challenge remains the reform of the region’s complex legal framework, which makes upholding the rule of law a daunting task. While formally subject to Pakistan’s basic criminal and civil law and falling under the provincial KPK legislature, PATA is governed by various parallel legal systems that have isolated it from the rest of the province. Instead of reforming a legal system that undermines constitutional rights and the rule of law, the military has been vested with virtually unchecked powers of arrest and detention. Pressing humanitarian needs remain unmet because of continued instability and short-sighted military-dictated policies that include travel restrictions on foreigners and stringent requirements for domestic and international non-governmental organisations. Islamabad and Peshawar should end PATA’s isolation and fully integrate it into KPK, removing the region’s legislative and constitutional ambiguities and revoking all laws that undermine constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights. The military’s control over the security agenda, governance and security must be replaced by accountable, responsive civilian institutions. A deteriorating justice system needs to be strengthened and the police force given the lead in enforcing the law and bringing extremists to justice. “The state must restore the trust of PATA residents by convincing them of its sincerity, effectiveness and accountability”, says Paul Quinn-Judge, Crisis Group’s Asia Program Director. “Helping them to rebuild their lives and livelihoods, free of the fear of militancy, would go a long way toward inoculating them against extremism and should be at the heart of counter-terrorism strategy”.

Indian Army: Three ceasefire violations reported after yesterday's flag meeting with Pakistan

The Northern Army Commander, Lieutenant General KT Parnaik, has said there have been three incidents of ceasefire violations since the flag meeting between India and Pakistan yesterday afternoon. "Two of them were reported from the Mendhar region. Firing was reported even at the time of Army Chief's address," Lt Gen Parnaik said. "We have not responded to these because they were not effective but we are watching them," he told NDTV, adding Pakistan had planted mines in Indian territory. "During the ceasefire violations, they would fire on the pickets and taking advantage of the night, some terrorists have probably come in and they have planted some mines. These were discovered and we have uncovered these mines, they are Pakistani mines. We had shown these to the Pakistani Brigadier who had come (for the flag meeting)," said Lt Gen Parnaik. At a 35-minute flag meeting between the two side in Chakan-da-bagh in the Poonch sector yesterday, India lodged a strong protest against ceasefire violations by Pakistan along the Line of Control (LoC) and also expressed concern at the barbaric way Pakistani troops treated the bodies of Indian soldiers killed after an ambush last week. (Read) Lt Gen Parnaik said, "At the end of the meeting, they remained arrogant and adamant. They were not ready to admit anything. Their body language was that of reluctance." He denied Pakistan's claims that Indian troops had crossed over to their side of the Line of Control on January 6. India maintains its troops had opened fire following a Pakistani mortar attack. Two days later Pakistani troops violated ceasefire and mutilated the bodies of two jawans - Lance Naiks Hemraj Singh and Sudhakar Singh; Hemraj's body was decapitated and the head is missing.Army Chief General Bikram Singh has said the beheading is "unacceptable" and "unpardonable". "They (Pakistan) have planted lies to justify what they have done. India reserves its right to retaliate at the time and place of its choice. We won't remain passive when attacked. Today, he asserted that the Indian Army is prepared to face "all challenges to national security and foil the designs of the enemy." Addressing the 65th Army Day parade in New Delhi, General Singh praised the conduct of the Indian soldiers on the border. "Our soldiers are doing their duty following the rules of engagement to the highest standards, he said. (Watch) After the killing of the two Indian soldiers, the BJP sharply criticised the government's policy on Pakistan. Yesterday, at one of the martyr, Lans Naik Hemraj's village, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj said, "The incident that has happened, we should take revenge... If we don't get this (Hemraj's) head, we should get ten of theirs (Pakistan army's)," Ms Swaraj said. (Read) But this morning the BJP's response was more muted. It assured the government of its support while calling for tough measures on Pakistan. (Read) That came after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh phoned Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley last evening and discussed the issue. That was followed by the National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon briefing this morning on the situation at the Line of Control (LoC).