Dawn Editorial 30 December 2020

Show of hands?

THE legal and political wrangling over the mode of voting in the upcoming Senate elections raises some uncomfortable questions. Prime Minister Imran Khan had been talking about replacing the secret ballot in the elections of the upper house with a show of hands. He was rationalising this change by arguing that the menace of corruption in secret balloting could be uprooted by a transparent mode of voting.
Last week, the federal cabinet decided to seek the opinion of the Supreme Court on the matter. President Arif Alvi was asked to be the conduit for this inquiry. According to a statement by the Press Information Department, “The president has sought the opinion of the apex court on the premier’s proposal to hold the elections using open ballot/show of hands.” Hearing of the presidential reference will begin next month.
However, something is amiss here. The prime minister and his party colleagues did not have a problem with a secret ballot in the Senate when their people were elected to the house in the past. They also did not object to the secret ballot when the vote of confidence against the Senate chairman — whom they supported — was defeated because some opposition members voted against their party position. They could do so because of the secret ballot. The PTI was a beneficiary. This newfound liking for a show of hands forces one to ask: why now? Is the PTI not confident of its numbers for the elections? Is it fearing desertions? Is it sensing its expected majority in the upper house could be dented due to the unpredictability of the secret ballot? These questions require answers from the PTI that may explain the peculiar haste on display and the unconventional route being taken to push this change through before the elections.
What makes this more worrisome is that the ruling party is opting for a legal solution to a purely parliamentary issue. If it really wants this change to happen, the preferred way is to take the opposition on board and allow for the matter to be debated as is the norm for issues that require to be voted on in the house. There are pros and cons of the open ballot mode of elections, and in this case, they need to be discussed in detail both in the committees and in the house before a vote takes place.
The PTI should abstain from sneaking it in through a legal back door. It would not pass the smell test. In any case, this change should be part of a larger set of electoral reforms that need to be undertaken before the next general elections. If such reforms do not have a buy-in from all relevant political stakeholders they lose the credibility that is required for them in order to make elections transparent and non-controversial. The ruling party should shun haste and choose prudence.



PIA’s ongoing woes

THE disastrous consequences of the Civil Aviation Authority’s cavalier approach towards its core regulatory duties, particularly where the national flag carrier is concerned, are continuing to play out. Only last Friday, Aviation Minister Ghulam Sarwar Khan expressed the hope that the ban on PIA operating to and from European countries would be lifted soon. Believing that the European Union Aviation Safety Agency’s concerns about the CAA’s licensing process had been satisfactorily addressed, PIA had asked EASA for provisional permission to resume its European operations while conducting its safety audit of the airline. However, EASA’s response has dashed those hopes. It has said that because the investigation by the European Commission and the International Civil Aviation Organisation has not yet been concluded, the ban remains in place. In fact, it has been extended by a further three months, a situation that will be reviewed only after EASA conducts an audit.
The situation is not only mortifying in terms of reputational damage but also causing the national airline massive financial losses. Foreign carriers have been quick to fill the gap created by PIA’s hobbled operations. Certainly, CAA has taken action against its personnel who played an active role in issuing ‘fake’ licences, and those who acquired licences through fraudulent means have seen them suspended. Nevertheless, for a scandal of this magnitude to take place requires an enabling environment marked by a lackadaisical approach to rules and regulations, not to mention a stunning disregard for human life. And this environment permeated the aviation sector as a whole, not only PIA. That the rot was allowed to fester for so long made the tragic May 22 crash of PK-8303 almost inevitable — just as it did other fatal accidents of domestic flights in the years preceding. When the aviation minister, a few days following the above-mentioned crash, rashly said that about a third of Pakistani pilots were not qualified to fly, it created a furore that was not going to die down. This time, no shortcuts, no quick-fixes, no ‘assurances’ will convince overseas authorities of PIA’s airworthiness. Nothing less than an independent audit by EASA itself will do. Meanwhile, authorities here need to build the aviation sector from the ground up with the help of foreign experts on issues of training, inductions, airworthiness, safety, maintenance and licensing. And those who have allowed PIA to come to this sorry pass should not be allowed a role in the airline’s next chapter.



Polio questions

THE Independent Monitoring Board that oversees polio eradication efforts on behalf of donor agencies, recently highlighted a crucial observation by Dr Faisal Sultan, SAPM on health: if the resources meant for combating polio could be mobilised effectively against the coronavirus, why hadn’t polio itself been eradicated? This is a mystery for the government to unravel, and perhaps it can look for clues in the IMB’s own comments that “it is not enough to see [polio] through an infectious disease technical lens”. For instance, the IMB mentions in its recent report that a National Strategic Advisory Group, meant to facilitate all-party cooperation on polio, did not meet even once. The report also raised concern over missed meetings of provincial task forces and a lack of coordination between federal and provincial officials over effective campaign strategies for different localities. It lamented the “box-ticking” approach of older provincial officials that prevented them from engaging in meaningful discussions with federal officials and their peers. The report stressed the need for “teamwork” between the centre and the province, while acknowledging the “huge burden” on the health authorities.
Going back to the SAPM’s comments, however, it should be remembered that for Covid-19 related measures, the government had some time to prepare and put in place precautionary measures. Secondly, to be able to effectively combat the spread of Covid-19, the authorities found a readymade human resource infrastructure in terms of immunisation teams that had taken decades to build while trying to control the spread of polio. Moreover, unlike polio, the Covid-19 virus is less controversial with the public and easier to develop a consensus on, provided the government focuses on proper messaging. Pakistan was close to eradicating polio by the end of 2018 when a series of blunders by the top tier of the polio management programme resulted in an uptick in vaccine-derived cases. This was also due to structural flaws in the programme. One can only hope that the loopholes are plugged so that both infections are eradicated.

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