Aug 15

Miltablishment’s End Game

Posted on Friday, August 15, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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It isn’t a coincidence that Imran Khan has woken up a year after the elections to contest their wholesale legitimacy and demand the ouster of the Nawaz Sharif government while Tahir ul Qadri has simultaneously leapt out of far-away Canada to demand nothing less than a “revolution” to change the political system.  Nor is it pure political opportunism that has compelled Imran Khan to constantly change the goal posts of his “azadi march” from a recount of votes in four Lahore constituencies, to the resignations of the four provincial election commissioners, to a reconstitution of the Election Commission and a reframing of electoral laws, to the establishment of a Supreme Court body for investigation into charges of electoral fraud and legitimacy, ending up with nothing less than regime change as a prelude to all of the above.

Both Imran Khan and Tahir ul Qadri have demonstrated links with the military establishment, or “Miltablishment”, dating back to the Musharraf-Pasha era. This powerful military establishment is now separate from and distinct from the defunct notion of the “Establishment” which denoted the military-bureaucratic steel-frame that once ruled Pakistan before the politicians corrupted and politicized the civil bureaucracy and co-opted it on their side. This agenda has been facilitated by the Chaudhries of Gujrat and Sheikh Rashid of Lal Haveli who are self-avowed proxies of the “Miltablishment”.

The “Miltablishment’s” aggressive but indirect interventionism in the political system stems from the potential tilting of power from the military to the civilians as electoral democracy has taken root internally and the external prop of the military in the form of the United States has withdrawn from the region. It first flexed its muscle during the Kayani era when the PPP government was straightjacketed and compelled to concede on all issues of “national security” as exclusively defined by GHQ-ISI. Now it has moved decisively to cut Nawaz Sharif to size after his decision to seize control of, and redefine, “national security” policy, especially as relates to regional foreign policy and ant-terrorism strategy. Mr Sharif’s decision to try ex-army chief Musharraf for treason has raised the hackles of the Miltablishment and compelled it to strike back.

This is to say that the Miltablishment’s preferred strategy now is to remain in control of the commanding heights of “national security” by making new allies in the media and even judiciary, both of which now claim “independent” status as organs of the state, to compensate for the abdication of the civil bureaucracy and loss of power to the representatives of the electorate.

This helps to explain not just the current movement for “azadi” or “revolution” by the political allies and proxies of the Miltablishment but also the critical role of the “new media” from the corporate sector in sustaining this development (The Jang/Geo Group is getting the stick because it belongs to the old media which is hamstrung by notions of “journalistic” independence.)

More significantly, it helps to explain how the Miltablishment intends to steer the ongoing political turmoil to its advantage in the next few weeks. A Zia-ist coup is not on the table. Equally, a Kakarist shove can be ruled out because the Nawaz Sharif of 2014 is temperamentally poles apart from the Nawaz Sharif of 1993. This leaves the Kayani option on the table. If Nawaz Sharif, Iftikhar Chaudhry and the old media were key allies in the game to make Zardari politically impotent, then Imran Khan, Tahir ul Qadri and the new media are allies today in the game to cut Sharif down to size. This is to say that the dogs of war will be called off from besieging Islamabad after Sharif concedes the demand to investigate the elections of 2013 via the Supreme Court, reconstitutes the Election Commission with the approval of the chief protagonists immediately, lets Musharraf off the hook, backtracks on his regional foreign policy initiatives and commits to dissolving parliament and holding fresh elections if the SC so directs on the basis of its findings.

Needless to say, however, the best-laid plans can go awry when these are subject to unpredictable mass crowd behavior.  Any deviation from the script by Imran Khan and/or Tahir ul Qadri in the heat of the moment can have unintended consequences no less than the premeditated provocation of terrorists. Certainly, after a series of miscalculations – starting with the Model Town incident and the stop-go measures to close and open the routes for the long marchers and the stubborn refusal to open negotiations with Imran Khan on his core issues some months ago – the Sharifs cannot afford to ride on their high horses any more. They have lost their foothold and standing and will be totally dependent on the goodwill and support of the Miltablishment to complete their term. Those who have pulled out the demagogues of today and also reigned them in can all too easily pull them out again, should the need arise, for a more decisive round in the future.

Aug 8

Independence Day

Posted on Friday, August 8, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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In the life of every nation-state, Independence Day is celebrated with collective joy and thanksgiving. It is the one day in the life of every country when internal squabbles are buried and the nation rises as one to face the world. Unfortunately, however, this tradition is on the anvil in Pakistan. Imran Khan is trying to turn August 14, 2014, into a day of political division, upheaval and violence. Dr Tahirul Qadri, the Canadian-Pakistani televangelist-cleric, is only marginally less mindful of the sanctity of August 14, having announced that his “revolution” will engulf the political system after August 14 but before August 30.

Both gentlemen are promising nothing less than a “revolution”. The problem is that for Imran Khan a “revolution” only means the replacement of Nawaz Sharif’s regime by Imran Khan’s regime after another round of elections under the constitution while for Dr Qadri it means the replacement of the current constitutional system with an undefined one led by Dr Sahib himself. If this were merely a sign of politics as usual, we would not be worried. But the rhetoric seems ominously like an invitation to a beheading of democracy by the military. That, too, might not be totally unacceptable if the track record of the military in politics could provide a fig leaf of justification. But the three military interventions since independence are primarily responsible for the strategic drift, violent sectarian strife and political turmoil in which Pakistan finds itself today.

It is also unfortunate that Nawaz Sharif, as prime minister, has not been able to display the wisdom and vision expected and is partly responsible for the mess in which we find ourselves. If the military had not been so unnecessarily estranged for a couple of provocative reasons, neither Imran nor Dr Qadri would have dared to stake their political fortunes and adventures on a suitable intervention by it.

No matter. Albeit belated, Mr Sharif is now using his political capital with allies and opposition alike to persuade Imran Khan and Dr Qadri to hold their horses. A national consensus is already evident against any attempt to provoke military intervention. Former president Asif Zardari (PPP), Maulana Fazal ur Rahman (JUI), Asfandyar Wali (ANP), Sirajul Haq (Jamaat i Islami), Altaf Hussain (MQM) and other political luminaries have been roped in to protect the sanctity of August 14. It appears that the government has adopted a carrot and stick policy to deal with the situation. The carrot of detailed scrutiny of a number of electoral constituencies is being offered to Imran Khan and the stick is being brandished before Dr Qadri. Both have unprecedentedly exhorted their militant followers to assault the police if any attempt is made by the government to thwart them. Consequently, the police has filed FIRs and moved in force to surround Dr Qadri’s residence.

Dr Qadri says he will announce his plans on August 10. He is unsure of whether to join Imran Khan – and risk losing the leadership of the “revolutionary” movement to him – or to go it alone and be isolated. Similarly, Imran Khan is aware of the serious fissures in his party and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government over his announced plans. No one wants to resign from the provincial or national parliament and be left stranded. Indeed, the public utterances of party stalwarts signal confusion and disarray. The PTI’s parliamentary spokesmen assure everyone that the PTI abhors violence and will abide by peaceful constitutional norms in making demands while Imran Khan thunders outside parliament about overthrowing the government via street mob power. Deep down, both avengers know that if the military were to intervene because of any anarchy engineered by them, they would not necessarily be its direct beneficiaries.

Most pundits are agreed on one point: the military wants to cut Nawaz Sharif down to size, like it did Asif Zardari, and is principally averse to any direct take-over. It has bluntly signaled its displeasure of certain government policies and is pulling strings to activate disgruntled elements in the opposition and media to help it achieve its objective. It is also now clear that Mr Sharif has finally woken up to the pitfalls of his earlier defiance of the military and may be amenable to a change of course on certain contentious issues.

If this is so, we should see some last minute “adjustments” by all the key players – PMLN government, GHQ and PTI – next week. This could take the form of an “agreement” between the government and PTI over electoral issues and a firm “commitment” to General Raheel Sharif by Nawaz Sharif to stay clear of military-designated areas of policy – which is reflected in a “postponement” of the “tsunami-march revolution”. This may be supplemented by a short stint in the cooler for Dr Qadri and renewed self-exile in Canada because he has unfortunately left no fallback position for himself.

Of course, all these calculations could amount to zero if any of the key players is unreasonably unbending. Then all bets will be off.

Aug 1

Lessons of Mass Movements

Posted on Friday, August 1, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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The PMLN government has decided to apply Article 245 of the constitution and deploy the army to manage law and order and enhance the security of “sensitive installations” in the capital territory of Islamabad for three months starting August. The decision was probably taken after detailed consultations with the military leadership over its modus operandi and politico-legal objectives and consequences.

Article 245 says that that thee armed forces shall act under the directions of the federal government to defend Pakistan against external aggression or threat of war, and subject to law, also act in aid of civil power when called upon to do so. The government’s orders cannot be called into question in any court.

Clearly, since external aggression and threat of war are not an issue currently, the government expects to use the army to control any law and order situation arising out of the “long march” of Imran Khan and Dr Tahir ul Qadri on August 14th.  Both are talking of a “revolution” not just to overthrow the government but also to radically change the political system of electoral democracy as we know it. Therefore, it may also consider applying Article 245 to Lahore and Rawalpindi if the situation so requires.

The political situation today is a throwback to 1977 when the PPP government of Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was faced with a popular Pakistan National Alliance movement across the country demanding fresh elections and responded by clutching at Article 245 to control the angry and motivated crowds in Karachi, Hyderabad and Lahore. When the government’s order was challenged in the Lahore High Court, the then Attorney-General Yahya Bakhtiar told the court it had no jurisdiction in the matter because Article 245 amounted to the imposition of a “mini-martial law” in the affected areas. But the Lahore High Court (LHC) struck this formulation down.

This lesson should not be lost to the PMLN government today, not least since the courts are overly aggressive in defending their newly won extended writ jurisdictions. Indeed, it is more than likely that petitions will be filed directly to the Supreme Court under Article 184(3) that protects the “public interest” (which is exactly what Imran Khan et al are talking about).

A second lesson should also not be ignored. After the “mini-martial” law was struck down by the LHC in 1977, the crowds got such a political fillip that the army under General Zia ul Haq was emboldened to intervene on its own account and overthrow the Bhutto regime by a coup d’etat.

The situation is perilous. Imran Khan is not talking of a soft gathering in Islamabad that will peacefully disperse after a few speeches. He is threatening a storm akin to the one that overthrew the regime and political system in Egypt three years ago. But the experience of Egypt is instructive. The army was called out in aid of civil power to protect the Hosni Mubarak regime from popular discontent on the streets but soon thereafter ousted the regime on the pretext of holding new elections and subsequently seized power on its own account. Much the same thing happened in Pakistan in 1977.

But if the lessons for PMLN are clear enough, these should also not be ignored by Imran Khan and Dr Qadri. The long-term beneficiaries of the army’s intervention in Pakistan 1977 and Egypt 2011 were not the political leaders of the popular revolt but the clique of army generals who carried out the interventions.

There is another factor to consider.  In 1977, a coup was made after Mr Bhutto refused to budge. But in Pakistan 1993 and Egypt 2011, regime change followed by elections became possible after Nawaz Sharif and Hosni Mubarak respectively agreed to step down under military pressure. But the Nawaz Sharif of 2014 is not the Nawaz Sharif of 1993 or the Asif Zardari of 2008 (when General Ashfaque Kayani was able to play a role in stopping Nawaz Sharif’s long march and leaning on the government to restore the judges). Should push come to shove as a consequence of Imran Khan’s long march, Mr Sharif will not budge even if leads to another martial law. And martial law will not pave the way either for fresh free and fair elections, nor the installation of Imran Khan and/or Dr Tahir ul Qadri at the head of the new regime.

All sides should reconsider their positions in the national interest. Pakistan is not Egypt. Uneven political and regional developments have created a multiplicity of parties and interests. The army and paramilitary forces are already extended in FATA and Balochistan. Relations with neighbours India and Afghanistan are prickly and precipitous. The economy is struggling to get back on the rails. US interest in propping up the army and economy is on the wane, unlike in the past when martial laws were imposed. Political negotiations rather than tsunamis and military aids to civil power are urgently needed.

Jul 25

Way forward

Posted on Friday, July 25, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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There is an overwhelming consensus in the country that significant electoral reforms are needed to improve the quality of the electoral process and preclude allegations of rigging and fraud that tar the legitimacy of the exercise and subsequently lead to political instability.  Accordingly, a committee on electoral reform comprising 33 members from across the party-political spectrum, including PTI, in both houses of parliament has been set up. This should not be cynically shrugged away since such parliamentary committees have demonstrated a seriousness of purpose and utility in recent times – cases in point being the committees that cobbled a clutch of consensus amendments to the constitution, laws against women’s harassment and most recently the PPO.

The demand for a close scrutiny of the election process has originated from the PTI. Indeed, in a sweeping critique of the former chief justice of Pakistan, the CEC/ECP, ROs and the Punjab and Sindh caretaker administrations, Imran Khan has desperately tried to build a case for mid-term elections by alleging that the elections were “stolen” from him by the PLMN.  But the charge is not substantiated by the conclusions of various neutral and professional election monitors like PILDAT, FAFEN, NDI, EU, HRCP, etc. Indeed, each independent monitor has accepted the fact that the electoral process in 2013 was better than ever before even as each has pointed to flaws and misgivings on various counts. The proof of the pudding is now available in the form of results of the 410 electoral petitions filed before election tribunals. By May 31, 2014, 301 such petitions had been decided; the delays are equally spread over the contesting parties – 21 out of PTI’s 58 and 28 out of PMLN’s 66 are still pending; PTI has had a zero success rate in 37 petitions and PMLN only four successes out of 38; the tribunals have de-seated two PTI candidates and nine PMLN winners. This is to say that the PTI’s charges are politically motivated because the gap between its charges of deliberate and premeditated electoral fraud and the facts on the ground is insurmountable.

Nonetheless, a strong case for further electoral reform has been made out. There were irregularities in pre-voting processes, voter identification procedures, ballot and counterfoil processing, voter facilitation and secrecy, ballot stuffing and polling station capture, influencing voters and election officials, closing of polling and vote counting procedures, result documentation and dissemination, and incidents of intimidation and violence were common.

Equally, the PTI’s broad recommendations are fair and should become the starting point of any such exercise. The system of selecting the CEC and members of ECP has to be improved; the ROs should be legally accountable to the ECP for their performance in the conduct of elections; post-election appeals must be concluded within 120 days; elections must be held under a foolproof biometric system and EVMs must be introduced for voting with a paper trail; caretaker chief ministers and cabinets must not be permitted to hold public office for two years after overseeing any election; and overseas Pakistanis must be facilitated in exercising their voting rights.

That said, there is no justification in Imran Khan’s demand for a mid-term election as evidenced by a couple of recent polls. Despite its inability to provide quick economic relief to the masses, most people still want the PMLN government to complete its term. Despite the inefficiencies and corruptions of democracy, most people still prefer it to dictatorship. Despite their differences and ambitions, most opposition parties want the PMLN government to survive. Indeed, there is no way Imran Khan can use street power to topple the government without a military intervention that amounts to a coup. And it is inconceivable that any coup will be tailored to fit Imran Khan’s political ambitions.

The best antidote to any creeping coup is good civilian government. This is the lesson of Turkey under Erdogan. He has been able to harness the military by winning three elections in a row and stitching up his relations with the Kurds and Greece that necessitated military overreach and dependence. Nawaz Sharif’s mistake has been to try and redress the civil-military imbalance without building the objective conditions for such an exercise. This has alienated the military and encouraged the likes of Imran Khan and Dr Tahir ul Qadri to sharpen their knives.

The establishment of a parliamentary electoral reforms committee in which the PTI has agreed to participate is a good first step. The PMLN should follow up by holding direct talks with PTI aimed at diffusing the political tension in the run-up to August 14. Then the PM should shuffle the cabinet and put a gloss of efficiency over the government. Finally, the government should assuage the military by letting General Musharraf off the hook and freezing the FIA inquiry into Asghar Khan’s charge against the ISI for funding and fudging the 1990 elections. This will take the steam out of the conspirators and allow the government to live to fight another day.

Jul 11

Democracy and Islamic Morality

Posted on Friday, July 11, 2014 in The Friday Times (Editorial)

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Politics is taking another ugly turn in Pakistan. Unfortunately, politicians are at the centre of the gathering storm, notwithstanding the provocative role of the military’s intelligence agencies to exploit some of them to cut others down to size and tilt the civil-military balance in the military’s favour.

The root cause of the current buffeting of state and society is Imran Khan. Barely one year after he gamely accepted the verdict of the general elections of 2013, he has changed his mind and is accusing the judiciary of having helped Nawaz Sharif steal the elections from him. His ire is directed in particular against ex-chief justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, the very same gentleman who was praised to high heaven by Imran Khan when he was in the saddle and targeting the PPP government of Asif Zardari. CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry has been the object of Imran Khan’s wrath since he turned down Imran Khan’s petition to “open up” four constituencies in the Punjab for detailed scrutiny on the perfectly legal ground that the route for redressing such grievances lay via the election tribunals and high court to the Supreme Court rather than directly to the SC.

Imran Khan is impatient to get into Islamabad and is threatening to overthrow an elected government next August by a “revolutionary tsunami”. Not so long ago, he had defined Pakistan’s major problem as its inability to enable and allow the democratic system to continue seamlessly without interruptions in governments before their term ends, a reference to the periodic military coups and civilian ousters that have laid Pakistan low. Today, he is preaching and practicing the exact opposite, aided and abetted by the perennial clutch of backdoor hopefuls like Tahirul Qadri and the remnants of the PMLQ rump.

Imran Khan has also turned on the Geo/Jang Group (GJG) that played a major role in catapulting him to the top not only by giving him the largest chunk of airtime but also by uncritically approving his candidature before the elections. Apparently GJG’s continued support for Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, coupled with its pro-civilian stance in the civil-military equation, has roused powerful quarters to nudge Imran Khan to take up cudgels against it.

However, Imran Khan’s personalized attacks on Nawaz Sharif and Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry have muddied the waters and provoked counter attacks that threaten to bring the question of “Islamic morality” center stage in politics. Imran has always tried to occupy the high moral ground in politics despite the many skeletons in his cupboard. Now the stage is set for reprisals.

Dr Arsalan Chaudhry, son of ex-CJP Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, intends to petition the Election Commission of Pakistan and challenge Imran Khan’s credentials to become a member of parliament on the touchstone of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution that define “a good Muslim”. The charge against Imran Khan is that he is the father of a child out of wedlock, which is against the provisions of Islam and which disqualifies him from becoming a member of parliament. This is the not the first time that Imran Khan has been thus accused but he has never had to defend his credentials for parliament on account of this charge. It is also not the first time that recourse to Articles 62 and 63 has been taken by election commission officials to disqualify candidates from contesting elections. So there will be a case to defend this time round.

This is most unfortunate. The inclusion of these articles in the constitution is a reminder of the huge damage done to it by General Zia ul Haq. Who is to determine who is a good and pious Muslim and who is not? Until now, election commission officials have been asking candidates to recite various Quranic verses as if ritual and rote knowledge of the laws of Allah qualifies someone to be a good Muslim. Regrettably, however, various parliaments have come and gone since these articles were incorporated into the constitution and none has had the courage to excise them. Now we are faced with an extraordinary dilemma: if the courts disregard the concrete evidence against Imran Khan, then they will be discredited; if Imran Khan is disqualified, it will amount to disenfranchising tens of millions of Pakistanis who fervently believe in and follow Imran Khan. Political instability will follow, especially since Imran Khan has vowed to drag Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to the altar of Articles 62 and 63 in retaliation. Indeed, if a halt is not put to Dr Arsalan Chaudhry’s endeavors, it is quite likely that the floodgates of litigation will be opened and scores of fresh petitions will choke the courts.

What goes round comes round. Since definitions of morality in the Islamic Republic are quite loose, it is best not to derail democracy by clutching at Articles 62 and 63 or by thundering into Islamabad at the head of a tsunami. Sane council should prevail in all contesting camps.