Female presence in parliament
The percentage of female representation in parliament is 20. Juxtaposing this, the productivity of female lawmakers compares favourably to that of their male counterparts. According to a study conducted by the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN), in the past year, female lawmakers initiated 44 per cent of the agenda in the upper and lower houses, which is almost three times the proportion of their representation. Women in the National Assembly contributed to nearly 60 per cent of the agenda. While we welcome the findings presented in this report, it is important to recognise that it depicts only initial steps that have been taken towards supporting more women to become involved in the country’s political and legislative processes.
In recent times, we have had more women-friendly laws passed, such as the Women’s Protection Bill in Punjab. In addition, the prime minister recently vowed to introduce legislation against ‘honour’ killings. These changes could perhaps be attributed to the increased influence of women in the corridors of power. However, Pakistan still significantly lags behind many other countries in terms of female representation in public spheres. Unfortunately, it still seems as though the majority of males prefer to have their female counterparts walk behind them, figuratively and literally; their egoistic ways have them still wanting to always be in leadership roles. There is still a perception that women who come into parliament on reserved seats merely act as mouthpieces for the male members of their parties. While this might be true in some cases, this perception certainly does not present the entire picture. To make women’s participation in the political process even more substantive, we need to ensure that women in all parts of the country — rural, urban and everywhere in between — are able to exercise their right to vote. There are repeated instances of parties colluding to deny women their right to vote in some of the more conservative parts of the country. While chauvinist mindsets still exist, the FAFEN study is indicative of the impact that women can have when given important responsibilities.
The futility of tax amnesty schemes
The amnesty package for the non-filers among traders of income tax returns, offering them to declare their hidden assets of up to Rs50 million by paying a nominal one per cent of the declared amount in taxes, was bound to fail because no such scheme in the past had achieved the desired objectives mainly due to the incentive for dishonesty inherent in them. Until March 15, which was the last date of the scheme before it was extended till March 31, the total number of returns received was 3,647 with a tax amount of Rs356 million since the scheme’s inception in February. The target had been to bring in one million new traders into the tax net.
According to the recently compiled Tax Reforms Commission Report, tax amnesty schemes are one of the major factors causing distortions in the system. In a democracy, the most important objective of taxation is to provide economic justice, which relates to distribution of tax burden and benefits of public expenditure, while maintaining vertical and horizontal equity. Taxation of the rich for the benefit of the poor is at the core of social democracy. It encompasses, besides redistribution of wealth, such questions as treatment of weaker sections of society, for e.g., women, children, minorities, the disabled and unemployed. All these elements are missing in our polity. Successive rulers have used taxes as a tool to extort from the public as much as possible for their own comforts and luxuries. Our financial managers are caught up in a dilemma. On the one hand, there is mounting pressure to reduce fiscal deficit through improved collections and on the other, they are not ready to abolish innumerable tax exemptions available to the mighty. Our politicians lack the willingness and vision to achieve a sensible balance between income, capital and consumption taxes. Pakistan needs more investments in creating human capital and necessary public infrastructure to increase the economy’s productivity. Besides, extremely poor compliance levels and awful enforcement; presumptive taxes and lack of documentation; adhocism in terms of economic and fiscal policy and a flawed tax system; and lack of consideration for values and integrity, are some of the factors that discourage development of a tax culture in the country. It is high time our policymakers accepted that tax amnesty schemes can never provide any long-term benefit to the economy.
Russia at the helm
It is now almost a week since President Vladimir Putin ordered his troops to withdraw from Syria and within 24 hours many aircraft had already returned to Russian bases in the homeland. Their support crews will follow. The fragile cessation of hostilities — not a truce — still holds for the majority of the country and all sides warily circle one another around the tables in Geneva where peace talks are being pieced together with infinite care. A wrong move at this point and the whole house of cards could tumble and the fighting resume just as ordinary Syrians were becoming used to a welcome silence on the frontlines.
The Syrian war is of monstrous complexity and achieving a temporary lull is in itself a considerable victory, but the key to the turning off of hostilities was the Russian intervention at a time when the forces of President Assad were on the back foot both against rebel factions and the Islamic State (IS). Russian bombs and missiles changed the balance, targeting Assad’s opponents and weakening them. President Putin said in his announcement that Russian objectives had been achieved, it has prevented the collapse of the Assad government and — probably — strengthened the chances of the Geneva talks to survive beyond early infancy. With the Russian withdrawal is a back-channel message to Assad — negotiate, and get on with that now. The West got it comprehensively wrong in Syria in terms of underestimating what it would take to unseat Assad, though with hindsight President Obama was right in pulling back from the conflict at the last moment — a change of heart that Americans may, eventually, thank Obama for in retrospect. America may not have been entirely comfortable to have Russia on point in Syria but it was the Russian intervention that created the wiggle-room that led to the council-chambers of Geneva. Russia will still hold the airbase at Hmeymim and can quickly re-equip if Assad teeters again, and the naval base at Tartous remains as well. The guns are mostly quiet and Assad still in power. That equation may not change significantly for months.