Dawn Editorial 1st February 2024

Peaceful elections

THE spectre of election-related violence is ever-present in Pakistan, with the last two nationwide poll exercises marked by bloodshed, particularly during the campaigning phase. A number of recent incidents in different parts of the country should alert both the caretaker administration and the security forces to the threat that violence poses to the conduct of fair elections. On Wednesday, a candidate — a PTI dissident — was killed in Bajaur, only a day after at least four people died as a rally for a PTI-supported hopeful in Sibi was bombed. Some reports have attributed the Sibi attack to the self-styled Islamic State group. In another incident on Tuesday, an ANP hopeful and his guard came under attack in KP’s Shangla area while on the campaign trail, but they survived the assault. Meanwhile, in Karachi on Sunday, an MQM man was killed as supporters of the Muttahida and the PPP clashed in Nazimabad. Earlier in January, an independent candidate was assassinated in North Waziristan, while a PML-N hopeful survived a gun attack in Turbat.

These incidents illustrate the varied nature of threats — from personal vendettas to political differences, as well as from militant groups, including religiously inspired outfits, along with separatist violence. Candidates in KP and Balochistan face the biggest threats from extremist groups such as the banned TTP and IS, while separatists may also try and sabotage the electoral process in the latter province. As for political violence, while levels have come down from past years, when parties fought pitched battles on the streets of Karachi, even minor arguments can flare up and turn into bigger disputes — a dangerous tendency in a city where various political groupings are flush with arms. It is the prime duty of the caretaker administration to protect candidates as well as voters in the run-up to polls and on the day of the election itself. The administration needs to concentrate on this core responsibility.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2024

From the margins

THE verdant landscape of Gilgit-Baltistan and the craggy terrains of Balochistan are echoing with protests that demand attention to long-neglected issues. These cries highlight a deep-seated discontent that overshadows the upcoming general elections. While elections in GB are some years away, the region is largely managed by the centre. Key among the GB protesters’ demands has been the restoration of the subsidised wheat price to the 2022 level, a significant concern given recent inflationary pressures. While this particular demand has been met, others remain unaddressed. These include the suspension of the Finance Act 2022, withdrawal of various taxes, ensuring GB’s share in the National Finance Commission award, and provision of land ownership rights to locals. Meanwhile, Balochistan — where elections will take place on Feb 8 — is witnessing a different but equally poignant set of protests. For some years, the province has seen a rise in demonstrations in Gwadar and, more recently, Turbat. The discontent in Turbat is driven by a demand to end extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances, reflecting crucial issues of governance and human rights. Unlike Gwadar’s protests, which focused on basic necessities and civil rights, Turbat’s sit-ins underscore a desperate plea for the most vital elements of citizenship: life and liberty. In the backdrop of these protests lies a complex political landscape. Balochistan has been plagued by a history of political alignments more focused on federal appeasement than regional development. This pattern, evident in the tenure of 24 chief ministers since the 1970s — many of whom have been feudal lords or tribal chieftains — has contributed significantly to the province’s arrested development. Corruption, law and order deterioration, and ineffective representation have marred its growth.

The people of GB and Balochistan are disillusioned with the elections. A deep sense of betrayal prevails there from years of unmet promises and overlooked needs. As Pakistan gears up for another electoral exercise, it is high time political parties and candidates recognised and addressed these pressing issues genuinely. Voters in these regions seek more than just promises; they demand concrete actions that will improve their lives. The challenges in GB and Balochistan are a litmus test for Pakistan’s democratic maturity. Will the politicians vying for power heed these voices from the margins, or will these areas continue to be footnotes in the nation’s political saga?

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2024

Double down

TWO verdicts in two days. A 14-year sentence for ‘corruption’ to accompany a 10-year sentence for ‘divulging state secrets’. First, his top lieutenant, and now his spouse also convicted and jailed.
And still, former prime minister Imran Khan’s troubles are far from over. What new depths will the state plumb as it makes clear its antipathy towards him?
The days leading up to the Feb 8 elections may hold more ‘surprises’. For now, we may only sit and spectate as facts, procedures, laws and institutions bend to the will of those who think that no elected leader deserves a free pass — until they decide they do.
Mr Khan and his wife, Bushra Bibi, have been convicted for under-declaring the value of a jewellery set they received as a gift while the former was still in office. The verdict has been delivered via an accountability court judge who, just days before the last general election, had also convicted this year’s front-runners in the Avenfield reference.
That judgement was overturned in November last year. Most commentators believe this one will not last too long, either. Incidentally — or perhaps by design — the same judge is also supposed to hear a similar case involving items retained from the state’s gift repository. The matter involves several cars allegedly retained by Messrs Nawaz Sharif, Yousuf Raza Gilani and Asif Ali Zardari in violation of Toshakhana rules.
However, given how completely the judge’s attention and energies have been devoted over the past month to delivering the ‘accountability’ brand of justice to Mr Khan and his spouse, he seems to have had very little time to spare for any other of the matters pending before him. He retires soon, in March, after 11 years in NAB’s accountability courts. Most accountability judges are appointed for three. During that extended tenure, he has judged four former prime ministers, all brought before him when their free passes ran out.
A word, too, on NAB, an institution that seems to exist only to cycle through political targets based on the whims of the powers that be.
The bureau has gained notoriety over the years for swooping in, guns blazing, when a politician’s free pass has been revoked. It digs up all manner of ‘corruption’ cases against the targeted politician, effectively drowning them under a wave of litigation.
Sometimes, a conviction or two is secured through legal proceedings based on weak evidence and conducted without regard for due process. Unsurprisingly, most cases and convictions collapse within a few years, and those once accused of serious malfeasance eventually return as political martyrs.
It is a rinse-and-repeat cycle that has gradually deprived the idea of accountability of any legitimacy whatsoever. As this latest conviction shows, nothing seems about to change.

Published in Dawn, February 1st, 2024


February 19, 2024

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