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Pakistan in Crisis Again

Paper No. 5373                                        Dated 20-Jan-2013

By Kazi Anwarul Masud

Pakistan could have descended into chaos  if the political crisis that suddenly emerged recently had not been resolved.

Canadian cleric Dr. Tahirul Qadri’s long march from Lahore to Islamabad protesting rampant corruption by the politicians and insisting on clean government had the possibility of interrupting once again the democratic process in Pakistan. Had that been the case then it would have been a repeat of military rule that has been the lot of Pakistan’s history  for most part since  its independence in 1947.

The situation worsened with the Supreme Court’s  order of  the arrest of the country’s Prime Minister for alleged corruption. Prime Minister Raja Parvez  Ashraf was accused of receiving kickbacks and commissions in the Rental Power Plants  case during his previous stint as federal minister for water and power. But then like many developing countries corruption is not unknown in Pakistan. In Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index Pakistan ranked 134 on the index with 42 countries ranking worse. In 2012, Pakistan's ranking dropped even further from 134 to 139, making Pakistan the 34th most corrupt country in the world. According to calculations  by Transparency International, Pakistan has lost an unbelievably high amount, more than Rs8.5 trillion (US $94 billion), in corruption, tax evasion and bad governance during the last four years of Prime Minister Yusuf Raja Gilani. An adviser of Transparency International acknowledged that "Pakistan does not need even a single penny from the outside world if it effectively checks the menace of corruption and ensures good governance"( Wikipedia).

The question that may be asked is whether corruption by itself can threaten democracy? The answer to such a question is difficult  because corruption has become an integral part of the body politic of most countries including those where the military captures power promising to root out corruption but ends up being corrupt themselves. Dr. Tahirul Huq’s denunciation of politicians as being corrupt and his demand that the whole political process be overhauled to screen out corrupt people from politics resonated with the sentiment of the people.  He alleged that billions of rupees were being taken away from the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) to be misused by ministers, MNAs, senators and MPAs. He claimed nowhere in the world development funds were given to legislators.

Qadri claimed that  a former prime minister of Australia, Bob Hawke, had told him in Melbourne that that he shelved a ‘massive investment’ project after a ‘top man’ from Pakistan demanded 30 percent kickbacks for it.  Hawke remarked that the major reason why Pakistan could not progress was corruption at the top level. Qadri  also said a former New Zealand prime minister had told him that ‘your prime minister, your leaders’ had 49 or 50 percent share in Pakistan’s largest state-owned projects.

Dawn in an editorial (19th January 2013) wrote: UNCERTAINTY, anxiety, apprehension and tension — into this destabilizing mix of factors roiling the political landscape at the moment, the mainstream opposition parties could have added their own mischief. Instead, led by PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif, a gathering of opposition leaders issued a ringing endorsement of the democratic process, rejected the crux of Tahirul Qadri’s unconstitutional demands and called for an orderly election process without delay. In doing so, they  helped dispel much of the uncertainty surrounding Dr Qadri’s sit-in near parliament, particularly the possibility that somehow the democratic process itself could be derailed if events snowballed.

It is  believed that the army was behind the long march of Dr Qadri and his followers and was waiting for the politicians to falter enabling the army to take over. This persistent belief despite denial by the army chief of harboring any political ambition could have contributed to the unity among politicians to reach an amicable solution with Dr. Qadri.

New York Times (15th January 2013) reported that  while Pakistani military rulers once purged their disdain for civilian rule through bloodless coups, the latest breed of generals has chafed under new constraints — the military’s damaged popularity after the humiliating American commando raid in May 2011 that killed Osama bin Laden, sharp scrutiny from an emboldened media, and judicial challenges from Chief Justice Chaudhry’s court. General Kayani, in particular, has stressed that the military’s role in politics was over.

But senior generals continue to wield heavy influence behind the scenes — foreign policy is effectively the army’s domain — and contempt for  Zardari’s governance is palpable in military circles.  The drawing rooms of the political elite have been humming with speculation of a “soft coup” — the imposition of a technocratic government, backed by the generals — for several years. The maturity displayed by the Pakistani politicians by unifying against Dr. Qadri’s undemocratic and unconstitutional demands yet negotiating with him to reach a mutually acceptable compromise formula was impressive and denied opportunity to  possible regression of democratic process. Consequently the Islamabad Long March Declaration was signed on 18th January between Dr. Qadri and politicians representing major political parties of the country.

A Pakistani commentator wrote: Dr Qadri  landed in Pakistan at a critical juncture of its domestic politics. An elected Parliament and government was  completing its tenure and elections were  almost around the corner; a consensus Election Commissioner was  in place and the nation was  almost geared to go to polls to elect their representatives. But Dr Qadri had put forward his demands that almost asked for the deferment of the elections. His demands included the establishment of an interim administration that met his approval and cleansing the electoral process according to the provisions provided in the constitution. For this purpose, he wanted to delay the elections to an unspecified time period in which Pakistan’s political, diplomatic and domestic affairs would  be run by the interim administration.

Despite the fact that his campaign was supposedly  funded from dubious sources, one wonders why Dr Qadri, a Canadian citizen, has selected this time to come to Pakistan? It is  believed in some quarters  that his visit has an international agenda. Prior to his visit the rumors were that the British Foreign Minister had been meeting him; that he had been visiting the US State Department; and that his media campaign was being funded from EU sources and managed from the UAE. American hand in the agitation of Dr. Qadri was also suspected.

A section of people in Pakistan believe   that Washington wants India to play a significant role in post-US Afghanistan. Pakistan’s help, however, is essential in any arrangement that the USA wants to put on ground in the war-torn country. Nevertheless, a representative Pakistani government that is answerable to Parliament will not agree to India playing a dominant role in Afghanistan despite US desires. In the Pak-US relations, Pakistan’s nuclear capability takes the centre stage, while America despite its assurances is wary of this capability; thus, neutralization of its nukes is a high-priority objective for Washington( Dr. Qadri’s Pakistan sojourn- The Nation-16-01-2013).

Despite Chief Justice Ifthikar Choudhury’s mercurial temperament and his on-again off-again feud with President Asif Ali Zardari it was  perhaps coincidental that the SC judgment came at an opportune moment for  Dr. Qadri’s sit-in agitation. After all Prime Minister  Raja Ashraf was given the title of Raja Rental after he was accused of receiving kickbacks in the rental power projects. Of the 19 RPP deals signed initially, only nine were allowed to function after a damning Asian Development Bank evaluation report. Subsequently, six of those nine RPPs were discontinued. The Prime Minister was also accused of buying property in London from money earned through corruption in various scams.

Prestigious newspaper Dawn felt that “the timing of the Supreme Court order that has effectively asked for the prime minister’s arrest — coming as it did just as Dr Qadri was demanding the government’s dismissal — wasn’t simply a natural milestone in the rental power case, in which orders to investigate the accused were issued several months ago. Even if arrests were overdue, the SC would have done both the country and itself a favour by waiting a few more days — having already waited nearly a year — thereby avoiding the perception of backing Dr Qadri’s still-unclear agenda”.

One wonders whether regression of democracy in Pakistan would have served the interests of the US and Pakistan’s neighbors. The New York Times observed that  relations with India have dipped, after ill-tempered border skirmishes in which soldiers on both sides were killed. As it is all unfolding, the country’s powerful military command, long at odds with the government of President Asif Ali Zardari, is in sphinx mode. The army chief, Gen. Ashfaq Parvez Kayani, and his commanders have maintained a cool distance from the unfolding political chaos, their silence stoking speculation about whether the military’s days of political intervention are really, as it claims, over. 

More than anything else, there is a sense that gears are again shifting in Pakistan, in a direction few dare to predict — bad news for  Zardari’s government, of course, but also potentially for American interests, which see stability in Pakistan as crucial to a smooth withdrawal in Afghanistan next year, as well as a guarantor of the security of the country’s nuclear arsenal . Despite support from political parties and civil society to prevent derailment of the democratic process given the extent of corruption and mal-governance by the regime it is not surprising that Dr. Qadri’s long march received such attention from the people and the media.

Qadri said that his revolution  was unlike the bloody revolutions of France, Russia, China, Tunisia and Egypt. His four demands were : electoral reforms under the Constitution and dissolution of the Election Commission and its reconstitution; strict implementation of the Articles 62, 63 and 218 of the Constitution and the Representation of the People Act, 1976; installation of a caretaker government; and dissolution of the assemblies and a mechanism for holding the elections in a transparent manner. 

On 18th January the political leaders and Dr. Qadri signed Islamabad Declaration that states:  1) The National Assembly shall be dissolved at any time before March 16, 2013, (due date), so that the elections may take place within the 90 days. One month will be given for scrutiny of nomination paper for the purpose of pre-clearance of the candidates under article 62 and 63 of the constitution so that the eligibility of the candidates is determined by the Elections Commission of Pakistan. No candidate would be allowed to start the election campaign until pre-clearance on his/her eligibility is given by the Election Commission of Pakistan.2) The treasury benches in complete consensus with Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) will propose names of two honest and impartial persons for appointment as Caretaker Prime Minister.3) Issue of composition of the Election Commission of Pakistan will be discussed at the next meeting on Sunday, January 27, 2013.

Though the conclusion of the long march has been described by some as much ado about nothing it is incredible that a person unknown till recently could force  politicians, corrupt and inept like in many  developing countries, to make  such concessions from Stephen Cohen’s “moderate oligarchy” and effectively admit their defects just before the elections are due to be  held. It is generally believed that Pakistan has three power centers – one is the  elected government, second is the all powerful  ISI/Military, and the third is unofficial but the equally powerful mobile non state actors of Islamists’ lobby of some twenty odd  extremist outlawed terrorist groups forming a conglomerate. The Muttahida Jihad Council,  of Pakistan-based Jehadi outfits, was  formed in November 1990 to bring under a single platform all the outfits involved in the terrorist violence in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K).

While applauding the compromising efforts of Pakistani politicians, unlike politicians of some other countries, to come to terms with blatantly undemocratic and unconstitutional demands of Dr. Qadri to save the nation from another spell of military rule one cannot but wonder whether politicians have not fallen  into an “Islamic trap” of Dar el-salaam or  that part of the world in which Islam rules, i.e. any area which has been subjugated to Islam. According to different Muslim theologians, this could include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and other countries where the law of the land is either sharia’ (Islamic religious law) or based upon sharia. One hopes Pakistan will not have to relive General Zia-ul-Huq’s crusade of “Shariatization” and thereby lead the country to the  extremity of a theocratic state. Pakistan has talents that can take the country along the path of peace and prosperity.

The writer is a former Secretary and Ambassador of Bangladesh