Dawn Editorials 27th May 2023

Smoke and mirrors

WHETHER there is sufficient evidence to conclusively prove a quid pro quo between Imran Khan and Malik Riaz in the Al Qadir Trust case is for the investigation to determine.

However, Mr Khan’s version of events surrounding the UK-based National Crime Agency’s £190m settlement with the property tycoon — which is at the heart of the aforementioned case — is another story.

In his video address on Wednesday, the former premier was at pains to give an innocuous account of his government’s decision to hand back to Mr Riaz the millions recovered from him by the NCA, which investigates money laundering and finances derived from criminal activity in the UK and abroad.

It was a disingenuous attempt to pull the wool over the nation’s eyes. Mr Khan said his government was “given a choice” — either keep the settlement confidential and get the money back to Pakistan, or undertake litigation in the UK (presumably to prove it was ill-gotten gains in order to bring it back).

As Pakistan had already, according to him, “wasted $100m in overseas litigation”, they decided on the first option. But the million-dollar question is, why did the PTI government allow the individual from whom the money had been forfeited to benefit from its return?

Moreover, it would have been the NCA’s job to initiate criminal proceedings against Mr Riaz, if it chose to do so. Its website says: “Parties may (and indeed often are encouraged to) settle civil proceedings without coming to court”.

Also, in cases where suspected proceeds of crime are found to have originated overseas, the NCA returns the stolen money to the affected states. It is also worth asking why Mr Khan did not choose to enlighten his cabinet members who, at a meeting in 2019, were asked to give their consent to the contents of a sealed envelope presented by his aide on accountability Shahzad Akbar.

That they did so can hardly be termed an informed decision; and to put the onus on the “entire cabinet”, which is how Mr Khan styled it in his video address, is rather specious. Resultantly, the £140m that was recovered — minus £50m at which the 1 Hyde Park Place was valued — went into the Supreme Court account set up to receive the real estate tycoon’s civil liabilities in Pakistan. This includes Rs460bn the apex court had ordered Mr Riaz’s firm, Bahria Town, to pay as settlement for thousands of acres it had illegally acquired in Karachi.

In one respect, however, Mr Khan is spot on. He has rightly questioned the credibility of the Al Qadir Trust case without investigating the other party to the alleged quid pro quo, Mr Riaz. Instead, the government is assiduously avoiding even the mention of the extremely well-connected real estate developer’s name.

Published in Dawn, May 26th, 2023

Poorer nation

AWAY from the suffocation building on the political front, figures regarding the state of the economy, approved by the National Accounts Committee and released on Thursday by the government, have ignited fresh controversy.

Quite a few among the small clique of commentators who keep a keen eye on Pakistan’s economic affairs have been expressing the apprehension that the released statistics — which show a massive deceleration in GDP growth this year — may have been manipulated.

They are pointing to what they see as glaring anomalies in the various data points used to calculate national GDP, arguing that the already dismal official calculations may, in fact, be covering up an even more devastating reality.

Whatever the case may be, the picture will become clearer once the government releases the detailed Economic Survey for the outgoing fiscal year.

Meanwhile, while those with a more academic tilt may continue to debate exactly how poorly they think the economy did over the last year, even the official figures have not been able to deny the fact that the citizenry has been left decidedly poorer by this government’s mismanagement.

According to the released data, per capita income fell to $1,568 this fiscal year, after growing from $1,677 in 2021 to $1,766 last year. This decline of a little more than 11pc translates to the fact that the country actually reversed its human development progress under the stewardship of the PML-N’s much-vaunted finance team.

In even simpler terms: the quality of life for every Pakistani citizen has experienced a sudden decline, thanks in large part to the government. While the poor faced the brunt of this devastation, the middle-income classes and the elite too could not avoid the fallout of Finance Minister Ishaq Dar’s reckless policies.

This much is borne out by anecdotal evidence: talk to farmers, rickshaw drivers, young professionals or C-suite executives from almost any industry today, and one finds only discontentment.

The citizenry has made difficult compromises to continue surviving amidst uncontrolled inflation, the stagnating economy and the government’s bad policies to artificially control exchange rates.

For some, these compromises have meant cutting back on meals; for others, they have meant shutting down factories. It is depressing that while the citizenry has been bled dry over this past year, there is still no push to hold the responsible to account.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2023

Election uncertainty

AS the nation remains bitterly divided, with certain forces strengthening their already suffocating grip over national life, the only hope lies in the prospect of timely elections. But, as it emerged in the Supreme Court on Thursday, there are no concrete indications that polls will actually be held in October.

While hearing the ECP’s petition appealing the apex court’s directives that provincial polls be held in Punjab on May 14, the chief justice observed that as per the Election Commission, there was no sign of polls being held in October.

He also questioned how much of a delay in elections was tolerable, and how caretaker governments could continue in office after their 90-day constitutional validity had expired.

The PDM administration needs to dispel these clouds of uncertainty and assure the nation that there will be no delay in general elections.

The administration and the ECP cannot use the post-May 9 situation — specifically political uncertainty, violence and polarisation — as excuses to indefinitely delay polls. If anything, the situation demands that a new government with a fresh mandate from the people take the reins to steer the nation out of stormy waters.

Moreover, the excuses of lack of funds and unavailability of security personnel to safeguard the election process do not hold up to scrutiny.

As the PTI noted in a separate petition to the apex court, while the government had claimed that security personnel could not be committed to election duties due to the fragile law and order situation nationally, a sufficient number were deployed to control the security situation in the aftermath of Imran Khan’s arrest.

Further, as the CJP observed, while the administration apparently did not have the money to finance the Punjab polls, the government had just doled out Rs20bn to its allied lawmakers in development funds.

Indeed, Mr Khan’s gambit to force early polls by dissolving the Punjab and KP assemblies failed miserably in its objective. But the fact remains that elections, both to the national and provincial assemblies, are the only democratic answer to Pakistan’s constitutional and political crises.

Therefore, the PDM needs to announce that polls will be called early, or that there will be no delays beyond the scheduled date in October. Promoting an ambiguous stance about polls will only fuel further uncertainty.

The PTI head has said that an “undeclared” martial law is in place, while the chief justice has pointed out that “negative forces” will spring into action and deprive the people of their rights if polls are delayed.

To prevent these grim scenarios from becoming a reality, all political actors must call a ceasefire and agree to hold polls on time, while the establishment needs to let the political process proceed unhindered.

Published in Dawn, May 27th, 2023

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