Dawn Editorial 30 September 2019

Afghan election

IT is unfortunate that Saturday’s much-awaited Afghan presidential election was marked by numerous acts of violence, both on polling day and during the run-up to it.
The Afghan Taliban claimed to have carried out most of the election day attacks that have left a number of people dead; the militia had warned civilians to stay away from the voting booths.
Expectedly, as a result of the Taliban’s violent campaign, the turnout was low while the state closed over 2,000 polling stations due to the precarious security situation. It goes without saying then that those who did turn out to vote deserve praise for bravely defying the violence and threats, and carrying on with the democratic process — however hobbled it may be.
While poll-related violence is the biggest threat to fair elections, there are also issues of fraud; independent observers as well as Afghan politicians and voters have questioned the transparency of the electoral process.
Indeed, this has been an issue since the Taliban were ousted from power in 2001. Frequent allegations of fraud, vote-buying and other corrupt practices have cropped up during presidential and parliamentary elections in the country.
Perhaps one of the main reasons for this is that the democratic process has not been allowed to grow organically within Afghanistan, with civil war, foreign invasions and internecine rivalries severely disrupting the evolution of electoral politics.
But the process must continue and improve, so that a viable leadership acceptable to all Afghans emerges and pulls this unfortunate country out of the morass of decades of war and violence, and puts it on the path of a better future.
As for the presidential contenders, this is largely a two-horse race, with the incumbent Ashraf Ghani facing off against Dr Abdullah Abdullah, chief executive of the government. Though the two men shared power in the outgoing administration, it was seen as a marriage of convenience propped up by the Americans, and there were major disagreements between the two. It remains to be seen if the loser of this contest accepts defeat graciously, or if a fresh wrangle for power begins after the votes have been counted.
Looking at the big picture, although the Taliban have called the elections ‘fake’, what other method exists for the Afghan people to elect their representatives?
The process, flawed though it may be, needs to be improved, as there is no other alternative for power-sharing in a society as complex as Afghanistan, with its myriad tribes, clans and ethno-religious groups all wanting a slice of the cake.
The Taliban are doing no service to Afghanistan by attacking voters. Moreover, whatever dispensation emerges, the militia needs to engage with it for the sake of the country.
The Taliban may not trust whichever government takes power in Kabul, but they need to keep channels open if peace is to come to this scarred land.


Business ease

THE World Bank has declared that Pakistan has made a great deal of progress in its ease of doing business reforms, and as a result, the country is among the top 20 ‘improvers’ in the world. Soon the bank will release its ease of doing business rankings, and it is expected that Pakistan will exhibit significant improvement in its position too. The reforms focus on six areas in particular — starting a business, dealing with construction permits, getting electricity, registering property, paying taxes and trading across borders. In these areas, the registration of a new business has become easier. The use of online portals has helped a great deal, and soon the Federal Board of Revenue plans to introduce an app and a portal for filing tax returns as well, thus reducing contact between the taxpayer and the taxman.
Some of the credit for this change goes to the federal government, particularly the Board of Investment where these reforms were first conceived. In equal measure, the World Bank has lauded in its report the role of the Sindh Building and Control Authority and the Lahore Development Authority that have “streamlined workflows and improved the operational efficiency of their one-stop shops”. The BoI had initiated these reforms in October last year under its 100-day sprint programme. The latter focused the reform effort on one point specifically: it should take a maximum of 100 days to get a new business up and running. All approvals should be possible to arrange within that time frame. Perhaps it is because of these reforms, in part, that the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan was able to announce that 1,187 new companies were registered in the month of August alone, and 94pc of these were done through the e-portal where registration happens on the same day. This streamlining is essential to unleashing the entrepreneurial energies of the citizenry, and encouraging more businesses to comply with tax requirements. The sad thing to note, however, is that the government easily accepted the resignation of the architect of these reforms, the former chairman of the BoI, when he was frustrated with the pace of movement in other areas that particularly had to do with the Special Economic Zones. The improvement in the ease of doing business reforms testifies to how committed professionals can deliver results. But retaining them should also be a priority for the authorities.


Police excesses

PHOTOGRAPHS of bruised and bloodied doctors began circulating on social media soon after the KP police baton-charged and used tear gas against them at the Lady Reading Hospital in Peshawar on Friday. Fifteen doctors and medical staff were arrested and sent to jail under the Maintenance of Public Order Ordinance. They had been protesting against the Regional and District Health Authorities Act, 2019, which they say will lead to the ‘privatisation’ of public health service. The bill was passed hurriedly by the government, even though the chief minister had constituted a committee to address the doctors’ and health workers’ reservations. Shockingly, Section 144 was quickly imposed on the hospital’s grounds, which outlawed the gathering of ‘five doctors and more’, thereby criminalising protest. The doctors’ grievances go a little further back, though. In May, the professionals had gone on a strike to register their protest against the continued indifference of the authorities that did not consult them on the health reforms that were first introduced in 2015. They felt these reforms did not take into account the ground realities of the province, and they viewed the changes as the imposition of an expensive, ineffective, ‘foreign’ system. This animosity then culminated in a physical altercation between an assistant professor and the provincial health minister.
According to the police, it was the doctors who had first pelted stones at the law-enforcement officials. While these details cannot be confirmed, the introduction of Section 144 and the force’s heavy-handed response are unjustifiable. Unfortunately, it is a common occurrence witnessed in all the provinces. A few months ago, excesses by the police in Karachi were rightfully condemned, when protesting teachers marching towards the Chief Minister House were baton-charged and injured. Meanwhile, in Punjab the police are grappling with their own cases of torture, custodial deaths and extrajudicial killings. The inability to resolve conflict tactfully and the speed with which we criminalise peaceful protest speaks to a deeper malaise in society.


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