Peace prospects in Afghanistan
The realisation that some sort of understanding was needed with the Afghan Taliban before the NATO troops pull out has led the US to hold direct talks with the religious militia. The Taliban were unwilling to talk to Karzai who they considered no more than a US puppet. The religious militia was therefore keen to open their office in Qatar to hold talks directly with the US and other countries. The liaison office was formally opened on Tuesday when the NATO handed over security for the entire country to Afghan forces. Initial talks would reportedly be held on Thursday. While the development is to be welcomed, the road to the settlement is going to be bumpy as a cautious Obama has observed.
Peace in Afghanistan is in Pakistan’s supreme interest. The gas and power from Central Asia that the country needs badly can only reach its cities if the ongoing insurgency is brought to an end and a stable government capable of enforcing its writ in the country is in place. Stability in Afghanistan will encourage the 1.6 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan to return to their country. This would reduce social complications created by the presence of so many outsiders.
The office in Qatar will put an end to Taliban’s isolation. This is a positive development as it could make the religious militia respond to the concerns of the outside world. The Taliban government was keen to seek international recognition before it faced the US wrath in the wake of 9/11. Hopefully its leadership has leant lessons from its past mistakes. What initially imposed isolation on Taliban was their hardline policies regarding women and minorities. Despite the militia being in control of 90 percent area of the country, Pakistan’s attempts over years to seek international recognition for its government met with little success. The continued hosting of Al-Qeda chief Bin Laden finally led Saudi Arabia and UAE also to withdraw recognition. Thus Pakistan was the only country that still had diplomatic relations with the regime when Afghanistan was invaded by the US-led forces. While Taliban’s policy about women and minorities still remains unclear, the statement by its Qatar representatives that no one should be allowed to threaten other countries from Afghanistan’s soil gives one hope that the militia would not allow Al-Qaeda again to use the country as a launching pad. What should concern Pakistan most in days to come is the Taliban’s attitude to Pakistani militant groups which launch attacks inside Pakistan from the Afghan territory.
Pakistan should have good relations with whichever government comes to power in Afghanistan. The two countries have historical and ethnic ties that can bring them closer provided Afghanistan is treated with respect as a sovereign state on an equal footing with Pakistan. Condescending attitude that characterised the past has to be abandoned.
PTI’s misconceptions about TTP
The PTI is still a new kid on the block, hostility and derision come along with this naturally. However, where the whole thing takes an ironic turn is that despite being sympathetic with the Taliban, Imran Khan’s party, Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), has sort of become a target for them, particularly its leaders in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) where PTI is in government. In a suicide bombing the other day, PTI lost Imran Khan Mohmand, an MPA, among a total of 34 killed during the attack, with at least 25 more injured.
The killing of second PTI MPA in the same province is not only a shameful act, one that should be condemned, but also brings forth the mindset of the terrorists who the PTI is so insistent on giving a leeway. That the attack happened on the same day Imran Khan, PTI chief, took oath as an MNA, is a clear indication of what the extremists think of PTI, or any political party for that matter: they reject all political solutions outright; peace is not what they want; they want to dominate the country with their violent methods. It is ironic that Imran Khan in his maiden speech in the House alluded to the idea that the terrorists would have no reason to cause this violence and mayhem had the government not aligned with the US in its war on terror. His misconception that the terrorists were only responding back with terror because of drone attacks or because of government’s aligning with the US, is actually what it is: a misconception. He needs to understand that the TTP and its affiliates have even nefarious agenda. That they want to impose their primitive system, based on flawed understanding of Islam and a misogynic interpretation of Shariah, on Pakistan through violence is reason enough not to believe that they are innocent, or they are fighting for a righteous cause.
The country, fresh out of elections, hasn’t yet shaken off all the problems that are nabbing at its very core. The new governments, mainly in Balochistan and KP, need to work with the federal government to devise a strategy to tackle the issue of terrorism that has brought the country to a point where choosing one path has become imperative. A divided approach, with provincial and federal governments supporting different paths to handle the issue, won’t work. Lincoln’s statement that ‘a house divided against itself cannot stand’ fits the situation. It is time to devise an out of the box solution to put an end to the senseless killings by the TTP.
KP, Punjab focus on development, Sindh on patronage
Three provincial governments announced their budgets on Monday. Provincial governments run by Punjab, Sindh and Khyber Pakthunkhwa (KP) governments, each run by a different political party were announced. Some would suggest that it was the first time that the difference in mandate and manifesto came out strongly: the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) with its governance and social service focused manifesto in KP, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in Punjab with its focus on grand projects and austerity, and the Pakistan People Pakistan’s (PPP) in Sindh with more patronage projects on offer. The difference between the total budgets in each province is stark and dependent upon the economic strength of them. Punjab announced the largest provincial budget of Rs871 billion. Sindh’s provincial budget laid out an outlay of Rs 617 billion while KP’s budget was Rs344 billion.
A lot of eyes and ears were focusing on the PTI, which is in government the first time, and according to some observers the budget is the first “KP budget with a clear economic programme.” In comparison to the KP Finance Minister Sirajul Haq’s budget speech, the Awami National Party used the budget speech to blame the province’s problems on Islamabad and then merely recited the budget numbers. Haq, however, set out the PTI’s policy priorities, connected them to the budget number and spoke of how these policies would bear fruit. Apart from imposing a one percent tax on Afghan transit trade, no new tax was announced. The formation of a tax authority, already in place in Sindh and Punjab, was announced while a Rescue 1122 service would also be established. Rs22billion and Rs67billion were allocated for health and education respectively, while an education emergency was announced with the formation of an Education Advisory Commission is on the cards. How this would work out with the Jamaat-i-Islami (JI) in coalition and most of the province’s education shifted to madrassas is a question that will need answering.
Punjab’s Rs26 billion deficit budget imposes taxes on the rich, especially on the luxury immoveable property (houses) in urban areas, fashion and music shows, horse racing and circus. Allocating eight per cent apiece to agriculture and infrastructure respectively, the Punjab government has chosen to let the federal government handle the electricity crisis. In Sindh, however, around 40 per cent of the development budget was taken up by discretionary grants. That is sticking to the trodden path of doling out patronage to the select few. Some new taxes have however been imposed as well as practices to make the Sindh Taxation Authority more effective, however, the GST rate was kept at 16 percent. The common features amongst the budgets were that minimum pay was increased from Rs9,000 to Rs10,000 per month. However, implementation will remain a key concern. With Punjab not following KP and Sindh’s 15 per cent increase in government salaries, some protests have been seen in the province. Three different forms of governance have emerged. It remains to be seen which will succeed.
On the issue of peace in the country
The two terrorist attacks in Balochistan were not the first of their kind in the province. There was however a new government in the province led by a nationalist leader and another one at the centre under the PML-N. Both were committed to put an end to extremism and militancy. Their claims had inspired hopes that henceforth serious and meaningful steps would be taken to bring peace to Balochistan and the rest of the country. The matter this time has therefore gone beyond routine condemnation. Questions have been raised in both the houses of parliament about the apparent civil military disconnect, and government control, or rather lack of it, over intelligence and law enforcement agencies. Speaking at the floor of the house in the National Assembly, Mahmood Khan Achakzai underlined in strong words the need to rein in the establishment, which he held responsible for patronizing the militants. In the Senate, members of the house both from the treasury and opposition benches unanimously demanded parliamentary control over agencies without which, they maintained, peace could not be restored in the country.
In his briefing to the Senate, federal interior minister Ch Nisar Ali Khan told the house that Saturday’s terrorist attacks on the Ziarat Residency and Bolan Medical Complex were the result of “serious security lapses” and “lack of coordination” between security and law enforcement agencies. He admitted that terrorists had managed to transport a huge quantity of explosives and arms in vehicles passing through a number of check-posts manned by the police, FC and even army personnel both in Ziarat and Quetta. That despite such deployments the terrorists managed to carry out attacks raises serious questions.
The security establishment needs to pay heed to the speeches in the Senate where speaker after speaker demanded an end to the prevailing civil military disconnect over extremism and militancy. It was maintained by the senators irrespective of their political affiliations that there was a need to bring the operation of the agencies under the ambit of legislation to be able to address the issue of terrorism, forced disappearances, weak response and lack of coordination between different organs of the setup. Unless the security establishment puts its act together it would be under increasing pressure in the days to come. While in democracies, civilian control over the security network is established through proper legislation and better working of the parliamentary committees, the interior ministry too needs to improve its functioning to be able to rein in the law enforcement agencies.
PML-N government’s promise of rebuilding economy is linked with tackling terrorism
Terrorism has played havoc with business and industry during the last few years. Businessmen have either been forced to pay protection money or kidnapped for ransom. Bank heists have been committed by militants to raise funds for their activities. They have bombed business centers, mosques, shrines and schools, targeted law enforcement personnel and security installations, crating a perception that Pakistan was a soft state. This has led a number of countries and international bodies to discourage foreign nationals from traveling to Pakistan. The feeling of uncertainty created by terrorist attacks has led a number of Pakistani entrepreneurs to shift their businesses abroad. Meanwhile the rate of foreign direct investments has shrunk over the years. From the 20007-08 peak of RS 5,409m the FDI has come down year after year to reach a nadir of Rs853.5 million in 2012-13 (July-April). Unending acts of terrorism, rise in crime and shutter down cum wheel jam strikes in response to terrorist attacks have led to flight of capital from Karachi to Dubai, Bangladesh, Malaysia and some western countries.
Hopes that there would be a respite to terrorist attacks after the new elections have turned out to be unfounded. Since take over by the new government a number of terrorist attacks have rocked KP, Balochistan and Karachi. In KP at least two policemen have been killed and a High School blown up. In Swabi, two volunteers in the anti polio campaign were shot. In Miranshah, militants killed three security personnel. Meanwhile troops fighting insurgency in Tirah valley lost a Lt Colonel. In Balochistan, LeJ claimed bombing a bus carrying girl students and teachers and later attacking the hospital where the wounded were taken, raising the toll of those killed to 25. Earlier, the BLA had claimed destroying the historic Ziarat Regency. A day later armed militants killed three soldiers in Killa Saifullah area. In Mastung, gunmen kidnapped 3 more. In Karachi, three security guards were wounded in an attack by unknown motorcyclists.
The PML-N government is concentrated on turning round the economy. While these efforts are commendable the government has to realize that eliminating militancy is as important, if not more so, to resuscitate the economy. It is disconcerting to note that the government has not yet devised any policy to eradicate terrorism beyond a vague reiteration of desire for talks with the militants. The spokesman of the TTP on the other hand has clarified that there is no possibility of talks for the time being. This reduces the government’s space to maneouvre. Meanwhile, a newspaper report tells of several businessmen in and around Islamabad having been issued notices by the TTP to pay millions of dollars worth of protection money or face consequences. There is a dire need on the part of the PML-N government to move apace to resolve the issue of extremism and militancy.
Good, if it does so with sincerity
What was expected from all political quarters has taken place in Sindh again – the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) are set to combine to form a coalition government to rule the province. Having ruled the province from 2008 to 2013 without being able to solve the law and order crisis, the question is whether the coalition will be able to resolve the crisis this time around? Both political parties are left with much to prove. The PPP, having lost badly in the Punjab, can use Sindh as a much needed face lifter to restore its status as a national party. The MQM, again having failed to penetrate beyond urban Sindh and having undergone a much needed ‘cleansing’ process, now faces a challenge to prove its governance credentials. Is there a will to deliver, or are the two parties getting too comfortable in their shoes? The emergence of the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) should keep both on their toes.
On the ground, a three-member PPP delegation led by President Asif Ali Zardari’s trusted lieutenant, Rehman Malik, Pir Mazharul Haq and Makhdoom Jamil-uz-Zaman visited MQM’s Nine Zero headquarters on Sunday. The delegation was received by senior MQM leaders but missed out on the traditional red carpet treatment. The impression was reinforced that this is a very different MQM, which is not “too keen” to join the government. If it be recalled, the MQM left the last PPP coalition weeks before the May 11 general elections, having accused the PPP of “patronizing criminals and terrorists” and not holding local bodies’ elections. Relations between the two parties worsened when Chief Minister Syed Qaim Ali Shah visited Lyari soon after taking oath of office for a fresh term and attended a reception reportedly hosted by Uzair Jan, the chief of the banned Peoples Amn Committee (PAC), which the MQM calls a gang of criminals.
All these issues came up in the meeting between the two party leaderships. The MQM leadership did not offer any concrete reassurances that it would join the government, but MQM chief Altaf Hussain later said that there was no urban representation in the Sindh cabinet which comprised only people belonging to rural areas. The sense is that the MQM is only delaying to secure the best position for itself in the new provincial government. It also is seeking assurances that the PPP will take action in Lyari and end the alleged “unannounced operation against the MQM.” Malik denied that the PPP had anything to do with the PAC. The two men who flanked him said the alliance was the “need of the hour.” Now the MQM’s response is awaited. Only good can come out of the MQM joining the government in a sincere manner. Surely taking recourse to strikes in Karachi would not go a long way to resolving the genuine problems facing both urban and rural Sindh.
Flags were at half-mast in Balochistan on all government buildings yesterday, but against what? While the attack on the former residency of Quaid-e-Azam at Ziarat was claimed by the Baloch Liberation Army (BLA), and government officials had no qualms sending warning the way of nationalists, no warnings were issued to the claimant of the bus attack followed by a hostage situation which left 25 dead at the Bolan Medical Complex in Quetta, the Laskhkar-e-Jhangvi (LeJ). The attack on Jinnah’s former residency in Ziarat may have been a senseless bombing of a national symbol, the attack on female students was far more serious and involved a female suicide bomber on board the bus and was followed up by a militant holdout at the hospital complex. The situation in Balochistan has been considered out of control for a while but the silence of both the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and National Party (NP) leadership, now laying claim to the federal and provincial thrones respectively, against the LeJ borders upon criminal.
With at least 25 killed in the deadly assault on a Sardar Bahadur Khan Women’s University bus, located close to the Shiite Hazara neighborhood in Quetta with many Hazara students, the attack was a continuation of the spate of killings which led to the imposition of governor rule in Balochistan in January 2013. An LeJ spokesman, Abubakar Siddiq, called newspaper offices in Quetta late Saturday to claim the killings. Siddiq said, “The suicide attack on the bus was carried out by one of our sisters. She boarded the student bus and blew herself up. Then we carried out a second suicide attack at the hospital and our fighters killed several people. We did this because security forces killed our fighters and their wives in Kharotabad.” The raid by security forces on June 6 on a militant hideout in Kharotabad, in which at least three militants and two women were killed, went unnoticed on the national media and for a long time fingers kept pointing towards the nationalists for conducting both attacks.
However, despite the situation clearing up and it becoming clear that these were two different transgressors, Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar did not put the responsibility on any organisation or group while Information Minister Pervez Rashid “warned Baloch youth against taking up arms” and pointed to “local elements”, which could mean anything. With one of the BMC attackers reportedly arrested some key details may come forth but it is high time that the PML-N government paid heed to Baloch sentiments. Why is it feigning ignorance of the threat posed by the LeJ, thought to be close to the security establishment? And why did the PML-N leaders Sanaullah Zehri and Pervez Rashid remind Balochistan Chief Minister Dr Abdul Malik again that “despite having a majority, we, the PML-N, invited the nationalists to form the government”? Dr Malik himself is struggling for credibility from Baloch nationalists, and if the federal government continues to undermine him, the situation may only get worse.
Pakistan cricket needs to regenerate itself
With three matches lost on the trot, the debacle, the rout and the humiliation was only too obvious. The annihilation was indeed complete. Pakistan tried to make a fist of it in the opening game of this last Champions Trophy – an event that it has never won – against the West Indies, but only because the bowling came to the fore in trying to defend an un-defendable total. In the other two games, the batting continued to be way, way below par – indeed a shame for a frontline cricketing nation. And the bowlers simply were left with no nerve for a fight. Three sub-200 totals – 170, 167 and 165 the sorry figures they could muster – reflect the measure of batting failure. The top order getting out in a jiffy in all three games, with only Nasir Jamshed playing somewhat to his potential in the first two and the middle order sans skipper Misbah-ul-Haq not doing much to redeem itself either, it was really an ordeal to watch the green shirts in the middle. Coach Dav Whatmore tried to put some gloss over the signal failure: “It is almost the same team that beat India in India... One series doesn’t make the team a bad team. It’s a trend [the batting failure] in this series only.” Whatmore though is being economical with truth. Pakistan has been bowled out in eight of their last 13 games, and has lost the ODI rubbers against England, Sri Lanka, Australia and South Africa before this most recent dismal show, with only the last-ball win against Bangladesh that landed it the Asia Cup in between the only remarkable performance.
These performances make now obvious that Pakistan cricket has to revamp. In its year and three quarters, the Zaka Ashraf dispensation seemed to have come to grips with the management of a Board renowned for its mismanagement. But after the disastrous three Ijaz Butt years, anybody would have looked good by comparison. Still the relative period of calm is now definitely over. The rumblings had commenced well before the change in government, but things have started to unravel since the PML-N’s takeover. Despite having neatly choreographed his appointment for a four-year term through a new, custom-made constitution that also found approval with the ICC only some days ago, Zaka Ashraf’s reign as chairman is effectively over. The problem though is not the chairman’s person, but the manner in which he is appointed and also the total power invested in him. This is an issue that needs to be resolved by the Pakistan government, the ICC (which has laid down the law: no government interference) and other stakeholders.
Pakistan’s recent performances clearly show that Pakistan cricket needs to regenerate itself. But the good thing is, in appropriate hands, it has the potential to bounce back quickly. The key question is, whether it shall be fortunate enough to get the right hands at the helm?
A pattern of madness
When President George W Bush falsely accused Saddam Hussain of pursuing a nuclear weapons programme, the purpose was to have an excuse to attack Iraq and effect the regime change as Saddam refused toe the US line. Tony Blair followed suit by telling the British Parliament that intelligence showed Iraq’s nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons programme was “active”, “growing” and “up and running”. By the time the war came to an end the claims were found to have been outright bullshit meant to justify the devastation of a stable country. Tens of thousands of Iraqis lost their lives in the war, the country was laid waste and has not had peace ever since. On Thursday, President Obama made a similar claim. He accused Syrian government of using chemical weapons against rebels. He then announced that as President Assad had crossed the “red line”, Washington would supply arms to the rebels. The anti-regime groups include elements associated with Al-Qaeda and the extremist Salafis who are waging a worldwide jihad against the Shiites. It is a motley army like the one collected in the 1980s by the CIA and let loose in Afghanistan to avenge the US defeat in Vietnam. The world continues to reap the bitter harvest sown by the CIA in Afghanistan. Arming the extremists in Syria is going to be no less a disaster for the Middle East.
While US forces were ravaging Afghanistan, Bush launched US military in Iraq. Later Libya was attacked under Obama and the country was similarly consigned to lawlessness. Now it is the turn of Syria. Many think the American Crusade will not end in Damascus. Iran is going to be the next target because it challenges the US-Israel hegemony on the Middle East. Obama’s announcement is in fact the outcome of concerns over Syrian army’s recent successes against the rebels. If the regime retakes Aleppo, it would be seen as a huge Iranian victory right at the time when the US is dealing with Tehran’s nuclear programme. 300 US Marines have already been sent to northern Jordan in a move that paves the way to arming rebel groups. A Patriot anti-aircraft missile system has also, according to The Times, been deployed to the area.
The US move which has been supported by Britain and France has scuttled the UN plans for ending the war through talks between the government and the rebels. Obama would not have a peaceful solution to the conflict. Assad must face the fate of Saddam and Qaddafi. Never mind if Russia has dismissed US claims regarding the use of sarin gas as unconvincing. Or Sweden has warned that the US military aid for the rebels risked prolonging bloodshed. Or Ban Ki-moon has called the US claim doubtful. The superpower must have its way whatever the price in human lives. After all those who are dying in Syria are not Americans.
Is the new government up to the task?
The new provincial government, headed by Dr Abdul Malik, is facing its first serious challenge on the security front as the province is under attack from terrorists and separatists. Just the other day the terrorists, belonging to Harbiyar Marri-led separatist movement Balochistan Liberation Army in this instance, gutted down Ziarat Residency in Ziarat, Balochistan, a popular tourist place where Quaid-e-Azam spent last days of his life, with rocket propelled grenades. Having no regard for its historic value, the terrorists have not only attacked the Quaid and what he stood for but also by extension the core values of Pakistan. They have proved that they don’t care much about the ideals of freedom, independence and progressive thought.
Backward as the destruction of the historic building may sound, three bomb attacks, one in a bus carrying female students, and the other two inside Bolan Medical Complex where the injured of the first bomb attack were taken, and ensuing stand-off between Special Forces and the terrorists, who had taken control of a building in the hospital appeared to be more horrific than scenes from an action packed cinematic thriller. That the majority of students in the bus were Hazaras and that Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has taken responsibility of the attack on the bus, make the incident ethno-sectarian in nature while the killing of Deputy Commissioner, Quetta, Dr Abdul Mansoor Khan Kakar, who had rushed to the hospital to visit the injured students, make it a high profile one so much the so that the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had to ask Interior Minister Ch Nisar to help the provincial government in containing the situation. Assistant Commissioner Anwar Ali, an SHO and a CNBC Pakistan reporter are also reported to be injured with the first two being seriously injured.
Dr Abdul Malik, the new chief minister, is facing an uphill task but the question is if he is the man for the job, to bring peace to the restive province and unite the people under one banner of a federal Pakistan. The new chief minister who is supposed to represent the interests of middle class deprived Baloch population, instead of those of nawabs and sardars, might find standing up to the separatists, extremists and security agencies, whose role is tainted on so many counts in this mess, a gigantic task. Nevertheless, this is something Dr Malik will have to do or he would risk falling in the same pattern as the governments before his have so often been.
That terrorists have no religion, only an ideology based on fanatic delusions which any religion would denounce, has no doubt. That following this ideology is more of a psychological problem than following a religion is also beyond doubt. The terrorists choose the ways of terrorism instead of reasoning and logic which gives them an excuse for an utter disregard of ethics, morality and human values. With two distinct types of extremists working in the province – one, TTP and its affiliates, including the sectarian terrorist organisation Lashkar-e-Jhangvi; two, the Baloch separatists – the provincial government, fully backed by progressive Baloch leaders and the central government, is in a much better position to handle the situation. The TTP and its affiliates have no love for Jinnah. For them he was both a secular leader and a Shia. The Salafist streak in TTP has led them to attack shrines in the past. They could have considered the Residency as a virtual shrine, as thousands visit it over the year, and thus they demolished it. The Baloch separatist groups, on the other hand, want to eliminate anything in Balochistan that shows its connection with Pakistan. They too could have targeted the historic place.
Whatever the case, the acts of violence, terrorism and vandalism are highly condemnable. Terrorism in Balochistan will take time to be eradicated and that too through a combined effort of provincial government, Islamabad, armed forces and security agencies. However, it remains to be seen if they are on the same page.
Perception of tilt towards non-taxpayers needs to be removed
The government needs extra money to end the circular debt amounting to Rs 500 billion, pay IMF’s installments and kickstart its ambitious development projects. The government therefore needs to raise taxes. Neither the common man nor the super rich have a liking for taxes anywhere in the world, least of all in Pakistan as the abysmal tax to DGP ratio reflects. However till the state withers away in accordance with Marx’ prediction, governments will raise taxes and make laws that force people to pay them. The universal taxation principle is to tax all who earn income beyond a certain limit, without consideration from which area of endeavour other than crime it has been made. The major problem in Pakistan is that the governments have failed to bring all taxable incomes into the tax net. The ideal situation is to spare none who has crossed the defined income bracket. If the idea is to move step by step, a beginning needed to be made with the richest as a slight cut in their luxurious style of living can bring much more money to the national kitty than the taxes imposed on the commoners would.
The budget has again spared the powerful agricultural lobby that dominates the assemblies. No attempt was made by the government to persuade the rich landowners to cough up their share of the taxes. The budget has also spared those among the super rich who possess luxury cars, own palatial houses, frequently travel abroad, hold multiple bank accounts and pay hefty utility bills but fail to pay taxes.
The budget is therefore widely seen to be benefitting the rich. This explains why the Karachi Stock Exchange has leapfrogged, and now is at an unprecedented high. It relies on indirect taxes that hit the common man most. The rise in GST from Rs16 t0 17 pc has led to an immediate hike in prices, though the budget has yet to be passed by the Parliament. With the petrol pumps raising the prices of the petroleum products and CNG soon after the budget speech, there were genuine fears of the prices of all commodities going up as a consequence of adjustments in transport charges. The All Pakistan Clerks Association was the first to announce observing the black day on Friday. Other organizations are now jumping into the fray. The opposition parties who were at daggers drawn a day before the finance minister’s speech have joined hands to oppose the new tax provisions in the Parliament. The PTI has announced protests all over Punjab against the tax proposals. The Supreme Court on Friday ruled that under Article 77 of the Constitution no tax can be levied except by an Act of the Parliament. There is a need on the part of the government to make necessary revisions so that the budget is not seen to be tilted in favour of any single section of society.
Advisor versus Assistant must end in Foreign Ministry
Poor Nawaz Sharif is what one must say when one takes a look at what has become of his attempt to keep the foreign ministry to himself. Sharif’s move to head the foreign ministry as the prime minister was praised for Sharif’s guts in trying to take foreign affairs away from the control of the defence establishment and into civilian hands.But the move seems to have backfired. With Sharif deciding to appoint one advisor, Sartaj Aziz, and one assistant, Tariq Fatemi, the affairs of the foreign ministry have become a tussle between the two men, with the younger appearing to desire more power for himself than he has been ascribed. The two men appear not to have the same approach, with the older a much more experienced and statesmen-like, and the younger appearing gung-ho and ready to pull the trigger at moment’s notice.
While the Foreign Office spokesman Aizaz Chaudhry has tried to downplay the reports of a rift by claiming, “They are both working as a team in their respective positions,” it is in fact what constitutes the position each wields that is the matter of the dispute. Fatemi, in a statement issued on June 8 summoning the US Charge d’Affaires over drone attacks, had his designation noted as Special Assistant to Prime Minister and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs. The title ‘Minister of State’ was later omitted from the statement currently on the ministry’s website. Mr Fatemi’s profile later circulated among the media by the spokesman’s office said he enjoyed the rank of “Federal Minister of State”, a designation unknown in the hierarchy of the government. Later a cabinet division notification noted that Aziz enjoyed the status of federal minister while Fatemi would serve as minister of state.
The nature of the dispute is also more than who enjoys what delegations. Aziz, the wiser head, was reported to have expressed his concerns over how Fatemi handled the protest over drones. Such matters are routinely handled at the foreign secretary’s level and Aziz was of the view that Fatemi’s hardline would go against the PML-N government’s efforts to develop good relations with the Obama administration. The question has become over who wields control over the Foreign Office. The dispute has also reportedly flown into who would lead the delegation to meet visiting German Foreign Minister Guido Westerwelle at the Foreign Office, with Fatemi asserting his authority in the matter. Surely the signs are that the arrangement will lead to a dysfunctional foreign ministry and Nawaz Sharif needs to reconsider the wisdom of his decision to appoint too many cooks to manage the brew. If the turf war between Aziz and Fatemi is allowed to continue it shall come to hurt national interest. Either the spheres of power of the two need to be clarified at the earliest, and if that doesn’t work, the younger Fatemi who has no experience of running a foreign ministry, should be sent packing.
Elections in Iran pose questions over candidates, limited options
Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be no more the president. The twice elected Iranian president much loved in some parts of the world for his simplicity and standing up to the US, much hated in parts of the West for his “hate of the West” and “towing the line of the Iranian clergy.” After serving two terms, Ahmadinejad cannot stand for election again, and the idea that the Iranian regime is putting forward is that the new election is a genuine chance for the Iranian people to elect its representatives. But there are many critics of the election process, in which only eight of the 600 applicants for the slot have been allowed to stand by the Iranian Guardian Council. Most of these have been rejected without any reasons assigned by the 12-member council of six clergymen and six jurists. Candidates are vetted for “a good personal record, political competence and loyalty to the fundamental principles of the Islamic republic and its religion”.
With elections due on June 14, there is little choice for voters – and the character of the candidates remains in question. The real question: how much independence would the new president be able to assert his independence from Ayatollah Ali Khamenei? All eight candidates are considered close to the regime. At least two of them, Mohsen Rezai and Ali Akbar Veleyati, are wanted for murder in connection to the infamous 1994 bombing of a Jewish community center in Argentina. One of the candidates, Saeed Jalili is the principle negotiator for Iran’s heavily sanctioned nuclear program. Other candidates are known human rights violators. Jalili, one of the front-runners is considered very close to Ayatollah Khamenei, and if elected might not be able to open up Iran to more democratic freedoms.
The voter turnout in 2009 around was 80 per cent. However, it is expected to be less this time around. The turnout itself remains one of the key reasons the Iranian regime is able to claim public support. And despite the regime’s assertions, resistance continues to erupt in Iran at various moments. The last election was followed by a popular uprising, the Green Movement. It was clamped down on with great force while two of the four presidential candidates were jailed. This time again the three-week election campaign appears to be monotonous. No reformist has been allowed to contest, with questions over the democratic character of the election very real. The only saving grace is that unlike the Saudi monarchy or Gulf sheikdoms with hereditary rulers, the Irani people are given an option to vote for the head of government. What is hoped is that the Iranian people will manage to make their voice heard and that the regime will resolve any disputes after the elections in a peaceful way. The implications are there for the entire South Asian region and the Middle East.
KP government finds itself in hot waters, again
While it is easier to criticise government when you are not a part of it, leading by example is not that easy, as the Pakistan Teheek-i-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) is finding out, the hard way. Their good intentions aside, handling a coalition government is not a walk in the park; one has to accede to coalition partners’ demands every now and then, jeopardising the functioning of a government. How the PPP managed to last five years, with coalition governments in three provinces and at the centre, should give a hint or two to the PTI about what to expect and probably on how to handle it.
Even though 11 new ministers have taken oath, bringing the total to 13, the new cabinet that has been mired in controversies from the beginning, from PTI’s intra-party tussles on who will get the coveted ministries to its coalition partners’ demands of having specific ministries, seems all set to face another one. After the debacle of PTI’s decision to hand over Education Ministry to Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) and then wrestling for almost two weeks getting it back, an achievement in itself, the PTI seems to be headed to another pitfall of the same nature with its decision to remerge the Social Welfare and Women Development Ministry with Zakat and Ushr Ministry, a decision that has met with strong opposition from both its party workers and leaders, and from the civil society. The decision is exactly the kind that the critics of the party have been raising their fingers on: regressive and deeply unsettling one. If this re-merging of ministries goes ahead, it would become impossible to convince the very electorate of PTI that it is fighting against the status quo, much less convincing anyone else.
What could the provincial government gain from this step is only a bit of financial benefit but it would also put the same government in a negative light before the civil society, proponents of civil liberties, women equality activists and the international community at large, which is already skeptical of PTI leaders’ statements on the war on terror, drone strikes and Taliban. Adding salt to the proverbial injury is the reported handing over of the new combined ministry to the Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) whose track record on women rights has always represented what’s wrong with religious right-wing political parties: a repressive ideology with zero to little room for personal freedoms. If Imran Khan allows this to happen, his credentials as a leader to stand up for the oppressed and weak, for justice and equality, will surely become tainted, nay dubious. His so-called tsunami revolution wasn’t supposed to put women back hundreds of years, it was supposed to bring them to the very forefront of progress and moderation. He better make sure it does so.
Budget claims increasing tax net, cutting expenses but IMF, privitisation remain controversial
What began as a somber budget speech with new Finance Minister Ishaq Dar beginning on an emotional note and declaring that the government was “disappointed with the deteriorating economy” suffering from “subsidies, foreign debts, energy crisis and bad governance”, became an outline of not just the next financial year, but the basic policy paradigms that shall mark the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) rule at the centre. Dar revealed that the State Bank has a depleted reserve of $6 billion while the government’s net debts totalled around Rs15,000 billion. Compare the debt to the Rs3.4 trillion total budget outlay and outstanding debt is approximately five times the total budget. With the PML-N claiming to have been dealt a hard hand by the last government, Dar’s emphasis remained that economic revival shall take “at least three years”. Experts had suggested that the budget had to prioritise economic recovery, reducing non-development expenditure, overcome the energy crisis, increase productivity and reduce the fiscal deficit by improving revenue collection. Some of the answers of the PML-N economic programme were there in Dar’s speech while some remained unanswered. With tax revenues expected to total around Rs2.75 billion, the budget deficit is set to be around 6.3 percent of the GDP, a worrying figure.
The first word on everyone’s minds was what was the energy plan? Rs225 billion was the amount that Dar stated had been allocated for the purpose. However, to what purpose those funds would be used remained unclear, especially given that the circular debt now stands at Rs500 billion. Subsidies are set to come down while tariffs shall be gradually increased. In terms of increasing tax collection, Dar promised “no additional tax on those who are already paying their share in tax”. He spoke of how the tax-to-GDP ratio had fallen from 13.8 percent to 8.9 percent. He said that the government had planned to bring it up to 15 percent, but gave no timeline or concrete plan, except point to “widen the tax network”. He made an important point in saying that “an effective tax system focuses on direct taxes, while ours focuses on indirect taxes”, but then proposed increasing GST from 16 percent to 17 percent. A new levy is due on movable assets while a withholding tax will be imposed on foreign films and dramas. Eco-friendly hybrid cars will be excused of any duties. Dar said the 3G telecom licenses will be auctioned, a matter finding no bidders in the last three years, and the foreign exchange reserve would be upped to $20 billion in three years. Rs59 billion is the allocation for new dams while the road and motorway network is set to be expanded. The Pakistan Railways is set to be turned into a “corporation” while more privitisation is expected, with Dar pointing to a need to “shrink the public sector”. The government is also set to introduce an eight percent markup micro finance scheme for budding entrepreneurs.
As usual, the promise of saving Rs40 billion by reducing government expenditures by 30 percent and House expenditures by 44 percent will be believed when seen. Dar also announced an end to secret funds, except for intelligence agencies. The real question however is how to expand the tax net. An agricultural tax has not been imposed while setting the tax rate at 25 percent for traders will dissuade more than it will bring into the tax net. The more dangerous promise is the “public corporations which ought to be sold, will be sold” promise. The fact that Dar himself mentioned the recovery of $800 million still owed by Etisalat over the PTCL privitisation deal means that it is hoped that the government is aware of the dangers of privitisation. There was of course the silence about the military budget, with not much said about whether the PML-N was tilting towards demands from civil society to “reduce the budget” or the military’s demands of “increasing it further”. With the first promise, the end of circular debts made with a 60-day timetable, it does appear that speed and determination may define this PML-N term. But with Dar indicating that the government may go to the IMF to cover the budget deficit, the question of how the begging bowl shall be broken still remains. Perhaps more should have been added to the tax net. One only hopes that the PML-N plan will work.