Dawn Editorial 9 December 2020

Unelected aides

THE judiciary on Monday threw a spanner in the works of the privatisation process. But the principle on which it based its decision is a sound one that embodies the spirit of democracy.
In a short order, the Islamabad High Court ruled that unelected advisers and special assistants could not head government committees. It thereby set aside the notification of the formation of the cabinet committee on privatisation headed by Adviser to the Prime Minister on Finance Abdul Hafeez Sheikh. The petition had also challenged the appointment of advisers to the prime minister Abdul Razzak Dawood and Dr Ishrat Husain as members of the CCoP. While the decision is certainly a blow to a government that has long touted Mr Sheikh as a capable hand to lead Pakistan’s efforts to divest itself of loss-making state-run entities, it is not entirely unexpected.
In fact, it expands on an earlier verdict; together, both decisions spell out the contours of an issue that is particularly relevant under this government.
In August, the same high court, albeit with another presiding judge, was seized with a petition regarding Shahzad Akbar’s appointment as adviser to the prime minister on accountability and interior. That bench had declared that while the prime minister had the prerogative to appoint as adviser or special assistant whomever he saw fit, such unelected individuals could not legally exercise executive or administrative powers in the functioning of the government.
Indeed, the judge said they could not even speak on the government’s behalf. Moreover, only elected persons earn the privilege of heading ministries. Both the decisions are rooted in the preamble to the Constitution which says, “The state shall exercise its powers and authority through the chosen representatives of the people”.
To underscore the obvious, democracy does not begin and end with elections; it is a process, not a singular act. The outcome of citizens casting their ballot determines who will handle the levers of power. Appointing unelected people to steer the ship of state thwarts the will of the people, the very basic principle of a democracy.
No one begrudges the prime minister bringing on board people with the expertise to augment the government’s decision-making. PPP and PML-N governments in the past have done so as well, with advisers sitting in on cabinet meetings and even attending parliament. Prime Minister Imran Khan, however, seems to be governing largely through individuals that he has handpicked rather than those selected by the electorate.
This state of affairs has justifiably given rise to much resentment among the party’s legislators. The two verdicts make it clear that unelected individuals are to occupy a niche, supporting role. Their link must be to the prime minister alone, not to the bureaucracy or to the public. One hopes now that the court has removed the ambiguities, everyone plays their role within their constitutionally prescribed boundaries.


Growing deficit

AS expected, the country’s consolidated fiscal deficit — the gap between the government’s income and expenditure — is increasing by the month. It expanded to 1.7pc of GDP in the first four months (July-October) of the present fiscal year, up by 17pc from a year ago, according to new economic data released recently by the federal finance ministry. The size of the deficit would have been a bit higher at around 2pc had the provinces not delivered a cash surplus. The primary balance, or the overall fiscal balance net of interest payments on public debt, however, remains in surplus although its size shrank to 0.4pc of GDP at the end of October from 0.6pc recorded a month earlier. The increasing size of the fiscal deficit is blamed on the double-digit growth of 13.5pc in government expenditure, especially owing to the 34pc rise in debt payments to Rs931bn, despite decreasing defence and development spending. It is crucial to control expenditure, particularly non-development spending, where possible to hold down the deficit. But government expenditure is not the only devil here. The real problem lies with the government’s inability to ramp up its tax revenue collection.
The FBR revenues, for example, have increased by a mere 4pc during the first five months of the ongoing fiscal on a year-on-year basis against the required growth of around 24pc if the tax target of Rs4.96bn for 2020-21 is to be met. In other words, the FBR will have to grow its collection by at least 40pc in the remaining seven months (December-June) to achieve the targeted tax revenues, which tax experts believe is next to impossible. Thus, many are already predicting that the government may breach the overall fiscal deficit target of 7.5pc for the entire year by a big margin. The extremely low tax revenue growth is mainly attributable to the government’s consistent failure to reform its tax machinery and broaden the net through documentation of the economy. The only other plausible reason for the listless tax revenue growth could be that the economy is not picking up as fast as the government claims in the Covid-19 period since July. With the increasing number of coronavirus infections in Pakistan and its trading partner countries dampening the hopes of any significant recovery, chances are that the government will be forced to substantially reduce its tax target going forward, as well as cut development and other essential spending to achieve the deficit target.



Police killings

TO do away with the menace of extrajudicial killings carried out by law-enforcement officials in the country, it is essential that the institutions concerned — the police hierarchy itself, the courts and the administration — send out a clear message that there will be consequences for this crime. In this regard, while hearing an appeal on Monday, a Sindh High Court bench ordered the registration of a case against five policemen for the murder of two men in an alleged encounter in Karachi’s Surjani Town area last year. The court set aside the conviction of the appellant while observing that there were loopholes in the prosecution’s story and mentioning that the policemen had murdered the two men in question under the cover of an encounter. Unfortunately, this dubious method is used by law enforcers across the country, mainly because the criminal justice system has failed, while black sheep in uniform also settle personal scores by dubbing their victims ‘criminals’ or ‘terrorists’, and thereafter murdering them. Perhaps the most well-known case in this regard has been the Naqeebullah Mehsud affair, in which former cop Rao Anwar and a host of other policemen working under him have been accused of murdering the young man from Waziristan and a number of others in a fake encounter in Karachi while claiming that the victims were militants working for terrorist outfits.
If fake encounters — and the associated murders of innocent people — are to be done away with, those men in uniform who resort to such criminal practices must be punished. The message must be clear: those who engage in these methods will not be able to get away with the crime. Of course, this is easier said than done as police forces across the country have been known to boast ‘encounter specialists’ within their ranks who have earned considerable infamy for taking the law into their own hands. Along with strengthening the criminal justice system, the police hierarchy and courts must punish those law enforcers who indulge in extrajudicial killings.


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