Dawn Editorial 19th July 2023

Trilateral rail link

PAKISTAN has long been striving for greater surface connectivity via rail and road routes to boost trade, tourism and cultural interaction with the Central Asian states. The trilateral protocol signed by Pakistan, Afghanistan and Uzbekistan yesterday to link Termiz with Kurram via Mazar-i-Sharif by connecting the Uzbek rail network with Pakistan Railways is also part of that same quest. The project will support passenger travel and freight services. It will significantly contribute to the growth of regional trade and economic development of participating nations by cutting cargo delivery time between Uzbekistan and Pakistan by about five days and slashing goods transportation costs by 40pc. The participating countries have set themselves an ambitious target of completing the scheme by the end of 2027 though. This project is in addition to a more ambitious plan to construct a new 573km trans-Afghan railway track, the roadmap for which has already been signed by the three nations, to link Central Asia with ports on the Arabian Sea. It will allow Central Asian nations to reach the world markets by accessing Pakistan’s seaports through the Termiz-Jalalabad-Peshawar route.

The two projects will indeed open up landlocked Central Asia to the world for investment and trade, and help Pakistan access the region’s and Russian energy markets. Nevertheless, these plans will remain a pipe dream for as long as Afghanistan — the key to the success of any such scheme — does not stabilise and security conditions in that war-torn country don’t improve. At the same time, Islamabad also needs to effectively tackle security issues in both Balochistan, which is a vital link to the expansion of CPEC and economic cooperation with Central Asia, and KP. Yet, the potential of linkages with the Central Asian Republics cannot be exploited fully without involving other South Asian countries, especially India. Only a fully open, secure and cooperative South Asia can guarantee the success of these railway projects.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2023

New political party

IT is a sorry farce. With the powers that be bent on making the situation difficult for Imran Khan and his PTI, new parties have been carved out from the latter’s enfeebled corps, seemingly in order to weaken the former prime minister and sabotage his chances at re-election. Even though Jahangir Tareen’s Istehkam-i-Pakistan Party failed to make a strong first impression, another bet seems to have been placed on the PTI’s former KP chief minister, Pervaiz Khattak. On Monday, Mr Khattak, after surrounding himself with a few dozen former MPAs and MNAs from the PTI — some of whom, it later transpired, had no clue as to why they had been summoned — formally launched his political party. It quickly became clear that, as was the case with the IPP, the PTI-Parliamentarians lacks a raison d’être in the form of a party manifesto. Its strategy, for now, appears focused on seizing political space in KP while the IPP cleans up the spoils in Punjab. Why has the establishment opted for this strategy? Why is it introducing new spoilers in the electoral field? That is a question for the other political parties to ponder.

In Pakistan’s experience, politicians do not simply form new parties unless they have secured some form of ‘backing’. So, is the field being set to ensure that no single party emerges as the clear winner in the next general elections? Are we to have yet another hung parliament, beholden to the diktats of those who will not be accountable for their interventions in the governance process? Will we see another ‘civilian’ government scapegoated when this latest experiment starts to fail, say, three or four years down the road? Considering the experience of the 2018 polls, the above possibilities are not unlikely. The need for ‘stability’ has been a common refrain as analysts and policymakers grapple with the many crises that have seized Pakistan over the past year or so. It has been abundantly clear that Pakistan needs a strong government at the centre to guide it through its present challenges. Instead, what we are essentially seeing is an effort to ensure that decision-making remains in the hands of those who do not answer to the public. The way the political landscape is shaping up — rather, being engineered — seems to be a sure recipe for disaster in this context.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2023

Census & polls

AS the nation begins to enter election mode, the rulers have made it clear that the next polls will be based on the 2017 census. While this decision has been decried by some government allies, such as the MQM, the inconvenient truth is that this late in the day, the government has little choice — mainly because of its own lethargy — but to hold polls as per the 2017 numbers. Any other option may end up delaying elections, which is unacceptable.

The federal law minister announced on Monday that “if” the seventh census is not approved then constituencies will be drawn up on the basis of the previous head count’s figures. This is largely a foregone conclusion as the legal and constitutional process of notifying the latest census and delimiting new constituencies would clash with the electoral time line.

Some media reports on Tuesday indicated that the National Assembly could be dissolved early, though these were denied by the information minister. Regardless, elections would be due no later than November.

This means there is not enough time to notify the results, make the requisite constitutional amendment, and delimit new constituencies.

Independent observers also concur that polls will have to be held on the basis of the 2017 numbers. This is because even if the government notifies the 2023 results today, it will have to amend the Constitution under Article 51(3) and thereafter delimit new constituencies.

As mentioned, the government does not have the time to carry out these legal processes, while a caretaker set-up does not have the mandate to make constitutional amendments. Therefore, despite the reservations of the MQM, the fact is that there are few good options other than holding polls based on the 2017 numbers.

Of course, the rulers must shoulder the blame for this predicament. Apart from resource allocation, updated census numbers are essential for the democratic process, yet the multibillion-rupee exercise will be of no utility in the upcoming polls.

When provisional census numbers had been finalised two months ago, the government should have gone ahead and notified the results so that the legal process could have begun.

Perhaps the rulers feared they lacked the numbers in a rump parliament to make the requisite constitutional changes. Because of this mismanagement, voters in provinces where the population has grown will not get increased representation in parliament.

However, the fresh census controversy notwithstanding, under no circumstances should the polls be delayed any further. Already the Punjab and KP caretakers are operating beyond their constitutional tenures. This must not be replicated in Sindh, Balochistan and the centre.

The only way out of the current quagmire is for free and fair polls to be held on time, bringing in a new dispensation with a fresh mandate to govern.

Published in Dawn, July 19th, 2023

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