Dawn Editorial 20 November 2020

Electoral reform

PRIME MINISTER Imran Khan has announced that his government intends to pursue electoral reforms in order to ensure that in future elections are not disputed and winners and losers both accept the result. In this respect, he has said he plans to introduce electronic voting for citizens including those residing overseas.
In addition, he has voiced a strong preference to have Senate elections by show of hands instead of the secret ballot that is currently the method. The prime minister correctly diagnosed that secret balloting is facilitating corruption and vote-buying, and he reminded the people that his party had expelled parliamentarians from its ranks who had been identified as having sold their vote. However, the prime minister hoped that the opposition would cooperate with the government in legislating these reforms as the government did not have the required parliamentary numbers to push them through.
But the opposition has rejected these government proposals and has said it would bring its own set of proposals for a comprehensive reform of the electoral process. Opposition leaders explained that while they will not engage with the government as a matter of principle, they will continue to proceed with their parliamentary duties as well as their work in the committees.
It is good that both sides acknowledge the need for electoral reform. But it is a sad commentary on the state of affairs that the bedrock of the democratic system — elections — remains disputed. Today, we have plunged to depths where it is near-impossible to visualise political opponents accepting any form of electoral results. This bodes ill for the system as the Azad Kashmir elections are due shortly. In time, the country also has to conduct local body polls.
The general elections are less than three years away. Reform takes time. The parties have wasted years in arguing about reform and blaming each other for sabotaging them instead of sitting down together and hammering out the requisite legislation. Things have come to such a pass that the prevailing polarisation makes it very difficult to debate and carry out poll reform.
This is unfortunate. The government and the opposition may talk about their own set of proposals but these will not amount to much unless there is a broad consensus between both sides. In the absence of such consensus, and the urgency to make it happen, statements like the ones given by the prime minister and opposition leaders are more political and less substantive.
This is why it is critical that senior people in parliament engage in some quiet discussion to forge a basic minimum agreement on electoral reforms. Some reform is better than none. It is the responsibility of the political leadership to establish the electoral rules of the game before we head towards a fresh round of electioneering. The politicians owe this to themselves, and to the nation.


State Bank projection

BASED on recent improvements in macroeconomic fundamentals, the State Bank has revised upward its estimate for economic growth during the present fiscal year to up to 2.5pc — as opposed to the 0.4pc contraction seen last year. The new growth projection is slightly better than the government’s target of 2.1pc and the bank’s own earlier expectation of a maximum increase of 2pc in GDP. The growth estimate is based on expectations of a steady performance in agriculture, an upturn in the services sector and a modest increase in industrial output. When compared to the bank’s buoyant readings of recent domestic economic developments in its State of Pakistan’s Economy report for 2019-20, the IMF projects GDP to expand by 1pc and the World Bank by 0.5pc. The World Bank also forecast that economic growth in Pakistan would remain subdued during the next two years. It’s not the first time that the State Bank is ‘bullish’ on the economy’s growth prospects. The bank kept projecting growth of up to 3.5pc last fiscal year in spite of a significant decline in business confidence, high interest rate, price inflation, poor farm output and industrial contraction as domestic demand shrank because of IMF-mandated stabilisation policies. It downgraded its growth estimate and almost halved its policy rate only when it became clear that Covid-19, already tossing around the major economies, was going to fast topple this country’s economy as well.
Indeed, the change in the bank’s stance during the virus outbreak coupled with the reversal of harsh stabilisation policies and the fiscal stimulus for businesses has somewhat improved macroeconomic fundamentals and business confidence. Yet it is too early to say if the current recovery is going to be sustainable, even in the short term. As the bank acknowledges in the report, its growth projections are “subject to risks, including from the evolution of Covid-19, extreme weather conditions, external demand, and progress on the reform front”. In particular, the bank says, the earlier estimates for Kharif crops (especially cotton) don’t appear promising, given the weaknesses in farmers’ financial conditions and heavy rains causing losses to standing crops. Besides, a lot depends on Islamabad’s negotiations with the IMF for resumption of the suspended $6bn EFF programme. A reversal of post-Covid-19 policies could hurt business confidence and short-term growth prospects. At the same time, the government will have to bring its focus back on governance reforms and strengthen agriculture and industry for sustainable growth.



Witness protection

AMONGST the numerous factors hobbling the criminal justice system in Pakistan is the fact that due to inefficient witness protection programmes, eyewitnesses are afraid to testify, or end up retracting their testimony. As pointed out recently in this paper, three witnesses retracted their statements in the high-profile case of Naqeebullah Mehsud, an aspiring model who was gunned down in a staged encounter on the outskirts of Karachi allegedly by policemen. According to the counsel of Naqeebullah’s family, the witnesses backed out because they were afraid to testify against ‘influential’ suspects, which include former policeman Rao Anwar. This is not the first incident of its kind, as ATC judges have said on record that members of the public are ‘too frightened’ to assist the state in prosecuting terrorists and violent criminals. This is understandable, for unless witnesses are promised foolproof protection for themselves and their families, not many will risk their lives to testify against dangerous suspects. While a witness protection law has been passed in Sindh, its full implementation remains lacking, which explains people’s reluctance to take the witness stand without fear.
However, should the state so desire, it can put in place an effective witness protection programme that can help bring violent perpetrators to justice. For example, the paramilitary Rangers ensure protection to witnesses in cases which they prosecute, and observers say this was one of the key reasons for the successful prosecution in the Baldia factory fire incident in Karachi. Indeed, the state must ensure that such programmes — which protect the identity of vulnerable witnesses and help relocate them if necessary — are put in place for better prosecution of cases of terrorism and violent crime. If the state leaves witnesses to fend for themselves, no one will be willing to risk their life to testify against violent actors and powerful, well-connected suspects. Pakistan’s criminal justice system leaves a lot to be desired. Along with better investigation, a credible witness protection programme can help improve matters.


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