Parliament and Panama
AMONG a host of questionable decisions by both the government and the opposition in the wake of the Panama revelations, there has come at last a wholly welcome and sensible one: the opposition has decided to end its boycott of parliament. Triggered by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s overt reluctance to engage with parliament on a regular basis, the opposition boycott achieved its basic purpose of having the prime minister appear in parliament. That Mr Sharif did not on Monday answer the questions that the opposition had put to him is something for the opposition to wrangle with — as long as the debate is held inside parliament. At its core, whatever the specifics that the government and the opposition want to focus on, the Panama Papers debate is about improving the quality of democracy in the country. One route, a clearly necessary one, is to ensure that the country’s elected representatives are held to a progressively higher standard of conduct than in the past and as compared to the average citizen.
The other route, equally vital, is for the institutions of democracy to be strengthened. Unhappily, arguments for institutionalising democracy are often dismissed as pedantic or trite. The baseline is considered to be what the politicians themselves do once elected, and far too often the behaviour in elected office lacks respect for democratic institutions. Yet, that is not always the case. Consider the previous parliament where PPP prime ministers, particularly Yousuf Raza Gilani, made it a point to regularly attend parliament and answers questions where necessary. True, the role of the prime minister in the last parliament was limited by the reality that the PPP boss, and hence centre of power, was in the presidency. But Mr Zardari, too, made it a point to abide by the constitutional requirement of addressing a joint session of parliament each year and, perhaps more historically, transferring virtually all his constitutional powers to parliament and the prime minister. Glaring as the governance deficit was under the last PPP government, parliament surely gained in strength. It was doubly surprising, then, to see the PPP lead a walkout from parliament on Monday with the prime minister himself present in the National Assembly.
Meanwhile, the other leading opposition party, the PTI, has demonstrated a bewilderingly contradictory approach to parliament. Having boycotted the last parliament, the PTI has spent much time during the current one arguing for a fundamental pillar of a democratic institution — transparency and fairness in the process by which parliament is elected. Yet, the PTI has demonstrated a remarkable indifference to the actual workings of parliament, with Imran Khan leading the way in terms of non-attendance and the PTI membership generally uninterested in parliamentary goings-on. Perhaps now, with the PML-N needing to answer serious questions still, the leading opposition parties will once again begin to treat parliament with the respect it deserves.
THE latest annual report from the Pentagon on China’s security and military developments contains a few observations that are worth pausing on. Previous annual reports have noted only that Pakistan is “China’s primary customer for conventional weapons”, in addition to listing the various joint exercises the militaries of the two countries have participated in during the year under review. To that extent, the relationship between the two neighbours, as described in the report, could be seen as cooperative. But the latest report has added a new element: “China most likely will seek to establish additional naval logistics hubs in countries with which it has a long-standing friendly relationship and similar strategic interests, such as Pakistan, and a precedent for hosting foreign militaries.” With this possibility, the relationship goes far beyond cooperation towards a deeper strategic engagement, built on the history that Pakistan has written for itself as a launching pad for the regional aspirations of great powers. In its denunciation of the report’s contents, China has mentioned only the South China seas and said nothing about the intentions imputed to it. It is necessary for the government, and particularly the army which is in the driver’s seat of the relationship with China, to clarify whether or not Pakistan is indeed moving towards hosting Chinese naval forces, and how much of the CPEC relationship is actually military in nature.
Pakistan’s search for a big partner is undoubtedly driven by India’s massive arms build-up — the largest in the world — with the test of an anti-missile system coming as the latest provocative act in a dangerous game. It is not possible to view this arms build-up across the border without deep concern. Caught between the mutually reinforcing logic of regional control that is unfolding between China and India, Pakistan is left with no option but to seek whatever means its smaller economy allows it to beef up its own defences. Deepening the relationship with China beyond military cooperation and economic investment towards actually hosting Chinese forces and providing logistic support for their presence in our oceans is naturally a part of this search. But the gambit carries its own risks, especially given how the history of Great Power engagement in our region has worked out in the past. The Pentagon’s insinuation that Gwadar is really being built as a naval logistics hub needs to be responded to.
THE case of an upright police officer refusing to be intimidated by political authorities keeping him from doing his job is the usual tale of modernity and progress versus stubbornness and exploitation. DPO Shariq Kamal found himself up against a local influential in the southern Punjab district of Bahawalnagar. According to reports — bolstered by media images of Mr Kamal being honoured by local traders — the outgoing district police officer won the respect of the people of the area after he refused to be cowed by the local MNA who had been angered by the drift of an investigation. Senior members of the police department have confirmed that DPO Kamal rejected a compromise with the MNA; for this show of integrity, he was relieved of his duties by the provincial authorities and sent to the federal pool in Islamabad. Such a principled stand is quite rare and must be appreciated. In a country where the clamour for transparency and autonomous, unaffected and politically free law enforcement has been increasing with time it is bound to be viewed as a sign of reform in the near future. But yet again, the incident brings out the need for allowing the police a free hand — without any political interference whatsoever — in the performance of their functions, after putting in place a system that can hold the law enforcers accountable for any misdeeds.
There may, of course, be other versions that might want to present the MNA in a better light, and, instead, question whether the police officer might have overreacted or acted out of reasons other than commitment to his job. But such is the extent of our disillusionment with the whole system that we simply want to stand by those who want to establish the writ of law without considering both sides of the picture. The right example is important, and DPO Kamal’s case must be upheld as one. However, a balanced perspective is necessary to detect the failings of each side.