1000 DAYS

By Syed M. Aslam
May 22 - 28, 2000

The promissed crackdown seems to have gathered speed after the verdict

The military take-over on the eventful day of October 12 last year received the stamp of Judicial approval exactly seven months later on the twelfth of this month. It came in the shape of the verdict given by the apex court, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, in several petitions challenging the takeover. The decision justifying the takeover called it constitutional which was necessitated by the failure of the political process in the country. The Court has also given three years, from the day of the takeover, to the military government for the restoration of democracy and to amend the constitution with certain limitations. It also said that the constitution is still valid though a number of its sections have been held in abeyance.

The three-year time-limit given to the government of General Pervez Musharraf, the Chief Executive of Pakistan, will end on October 12, 2002. Seven months of this time limit have already passed and the government now has two years and 5 months or some 875 days left to implement its agenda the most vocal features of which include an across the board accountability without fear or favour, stern action against defaulters to recover the trillions of loans, a sweeping anti-corruption drive, devolution of power to the grass roots levels, and the establishment of real democracy in the country.

The verdict has asked the government to complete its agenda within the prescribed time and to announce election within the last 90 days of its rule which should be carried out within 90 days after the expiry of the three-year deadline. So what does the Supreme Court's verdict mean for the present government?

Firstly, the judicial time limit legally binds the government to complete its unfinished business within the prescribed period. This in turn means that the government which refused to give any time frame for the restoration of democracy, or whatever which passes on for democracy in Pakistan, to the high and mighty worldly powers including the US and the UK is now legally bound to return the power to civilian rule. Observers also see it as a hint to an accelerated accountability drive resulting in the disqualification of the majority of politicians.

The arrests of Lakhani brothers, the heads of powerful business group which owns a string of businesses including one of the two leading tobacco companies, an ISP company as well as a publishing house, and the former federal trade minister and influential industrialist and politician Chaudhary Ahmed Mukhtar shortly after the Supreme Court verdict indicates the gearing up of the accountability process. Newspapers are filled with reports of imminent arrests of hundreds of politicians and bureaucrats by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The promised crackdown seems to have gathered speed after the verdict.

During its seven-month rule the Pervez Musharraf government has started a crackdown on bank loan defaulters, initiated the ongoing Tax Amnesty Scheme till June 15 to bring the massive black money in to circulation, crackdown against massive smuggling bleeding the national economy, the resolve to impose the general sales tax at the retail level and the planned house-to-house and shop-to-shop survey to detect the wealth and property tax evasions.

During its seven month tenure the military government has increased the prices of petroleum a couple of times and has announced a Rs 100 increase in the salaries of government employees in grade 1-16 which is not yet been received by workers and staff of many departments.

The absence of any public reaction against the military takeover October last has been construed by the military rulers as a support for the sacking of a inept government. However, critics say that the seven-month performance of the government has achieved little to bring any relief to the people and the promise to initiate a swift and stern accountability still remains unfulfilled. For many who expected the military government to honour its promise of stern and quick accountability the slow pace of accountability, a fact accepted by the Chief Executive himself from time to time, is unacceptable. Many others who made the materialising of the said promise as the benchmark of the government's future performance are fast losing hope.

The recovery of the negligible portion of the massive defaulted loans, the majority of which was politically motivated, has dejected many who silently welcomed the military takeover as a cure-all to right the political misdeeds of the past. With the passage of time the sound and look tough stance of the government has been mellowed down on the one hand and the political cacophony is on the increase. For many the demands for the restoration of the democracy will mean the return of power to the same politicians who have been instrumental for the economic, financial and political mess the country is in today.

The silent majority is also wary of many recent developments which reeks of lack of strong resolve expected by the government, a military government. The interior minister, Moinuddin Haider, announced a war on smuggling last month. He not only asked to abolish smuggling but also to bring the Bara, markets selling smuggled goods across the country deriving their name from the similar biggest market in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), but also announced to conduct raids to force the traders to register their business, pay the taxes and to refrain from illegal business in the future. He gave the traders of the Bara market April 30 deadline to register or face the crackdown from May 1. As negotiations remained unfruitful, the traders of the Bara market staged a strike during which many of them moved the smuggled stock out of their shops to safe houses in the face of the eminent crackdown. A couple of days before the deadline it was reported that a settlement had been reached between the government and traders who were reportedly ready to pay Rs 15,000 per trader or Rs 10,000 per shutter annual tax. The traders however backed out of the reported agreement a day before the expiry of the deadline. An action is still awaited as the traders associations called for a three-day strike from May 19-21. Markets across the country remained closed on the first day of the strike. The successful strike, made possible primarily due to the brutal assassination of renowned Islamic scholar Maulana Yusuf Ludhianvi in Karachi a day earlier which resulted in sporadic violence, and the absence of deserving response is seen by many as sign of weakness on the part of the government.

Similarly, Chief Executive had to retract his earlier decision to make a change in the procedure of the registration of a case under the Blasphemy Law. The Chief Executive who had announced that a case under the Blasphemy Law would be registered through the District Commissioner took the amendment back a few days later when he announced a case under the Blasphemy Law can be registered directly with the SHO of a police precinct as previously.

The move by the Chief Executive, aimed at pacifying the pressure exerted by the religious parties in particular and people in general, resulted in further demands such as the restoration of the weekly holiday on Friday instead of Sunday. The religious parties which called the strike on May 19 as a protest against the change in the Blasphemy Law were divided whether or not to call off the strike. Many of the religious leaders dis-associated themselves from the strike saying since the demand was accepted by the government there was no reason for strike anymore. Others stick to the strike plans as some of the other demands were not met by the government. The Friday May 19 thus resulted in a total mayhem and confusion about the strike call given by the traders and many religious parties and leaders with the end result that markets across the country remained closed and only a small number of public transport vehicles were visible on the streets, particularly in Karachi.

The confrontation with traders, smugglers and religious parties on one hand and the slow pace of accountability, failure to check price increases, increase in petroleum prices including one a few days prior to the OPEC meeting which resulted in reduction in oil prices on the other pose many problems for the government to maintain the credibility in the pre-October 12, 1999 days.

So where do the government go from here? The seven months of the three-year time given to the government by the Supreme Court has already gone and in the remaining less than 29 months, or 870 days, it has to achieve the agenda of establishing a real democratic order in Pakistan, finish its accountability; recover the loot from the bank defaulters and corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and officials in all departments at all levels; complete its agenda of devolution of power at the grass roots level; revamp a badly damaged national economy and institutions; rebuild the lost credibility; and most of install a corruption-free civil and police mechanisms. These are Herculean tasks indeed.

While the meeting of the federal cabinet chaired by the Chief Executive Pervez Musharraf is confident to achieve the objectives within the time-limit set by the Supreme Court, the chairman of NAB General Syed Muhammad Amjad has said that the process of accountability can not be completed within the prescribed period. He has said that the massive white-collar corruption in all departments and at all levels requires thorough investigation which consume large time in order to make the charges stick. He, however, has also said that the process of accountability will keep on continuing in the times to come.

At present, the energies of the government is diverted on the Budget 2000-2001 which will be presented early next month. Observers attribute the increase in petroleum prices and documentation of the economy measures such as registration of retailers and imposition of sales tax at the retail level were all aimed at meeting the IMF conditionalities for the release of much needed loans. The print media is filled with imposition of massive taxation in the upcoming budget including increase in the prices of such basic amenities as electricity, gas and telephone. The Chairman of state-owned Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) has said that the company would have no option but to increase the price of electricity unless the government departments clear their power bills amounting to billions of rupees. Critics have called the WAPDA's logic most inappropriate for 'punishing Peter for the sin of Patrick,' or something similar to that effect.

The legal stamping of the military government, the permission granted to amend the Constitution barring a few restrictions, and the time-frame allocated to it by the Supreme Court is seen by many to result in speedy accountability to ensure a clean political, bureaucratic and economic set-up in the future. Replacing the farce and sham democracy of the previous years with the 'real democracy' as envisioned by the Chief Executive will not be possible without an across the board accountability.

In the next 29 months, of which ten days have already passed, the government has to fine tune its vision to meet another one of the objectives laid down by the Chief Executive in October last year — the relief to the people. Thus far the people who welcomed the military takeover has been deprived of any relief instead they are made to cushion increase in petroleum prices, hike in fares of public transportation, incessant increase in prices of essential and non-essential items. At present, they are bracing themselves for the massive taxation in the Budget 200-2001. It is time the government should provide relief to the people the majority of whom had welcomed the change last October in the hope that the military government would be more caring to their plight. Losing the goodwill of the lower and middle-income groups which form the majority of the country's population would not augur well for the government.

The following are the salient features of the unanimous judgement given by the twelve judges of the Supreme Court. The Chief Justice Irshad Hasan Khan announced the verdict on several petitions filed by the ousted ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League.

*** The PML's misrule had created conditions for a radical transformation on October 12 last year validating the military takeover on the grounds on the doctrine of necessity. The ruling validated the military takeover as the Constitution had provided no solution for the situation on that day and the intervention of the armed forces had become inevitable.

*** General Pervez Musharraf is the holder of Constitutional post and his purported arbitrary retirement (by the deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif) was void and of no legal effect.

*** Listing along list of charges against the legislators, the Court validated the takeover saying that "Where the representatives of people, who are responsible for running the affairs of the state, are themselves accused of massive corruption and corrupt practices in the public as well as in the private sectors, are benefiting therefrom and resist establishing good governance ; where a large number of references have been filed against the former prime minister, parliamentarians and members of the provincial assemblies for their disqualification on account of corruption and corrupt practices; where there is a general perception that corruption is practiced by diversified strata, including politicians, parliamentarians, public officials and ordinary citizens and that a number of parliamentarians and members of the provincial assemblies mis-declared their assets before the Election Commission and tax authorities; where there was no political and economic stability and bank loan defaults were rampant and that as per the report of State Bank governor, Rs 356 billion are payable by the defaulters upto October 12, 1999 . . . the extra-constitution step is validated as the Constitution offered no solution to the present crisis."

*** The Court held that General Pervez Musharraf, the chairman of Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee and Chief of the Army Staff, had validly assumed power by means of an extra-constitutional step, in the interest of the state for the welfare of the people. It also held that it had been validating the act under the doctrine of necessity and principle of salus populi supreme lex — in the supreme interest of the public. The doctrine of necessity had not been recognised only in Islam but is also accepted by such eminent jurists as Hugo, Grotius, Chitty and De Smith.

*** *** The Chief Executive shall appoint a date, not later than 90 days prior to the expiry of the three-year period ending on October 11, 2002 to hold general elections for the National Assembly, provincial assemblies and Senate within 90 days after the expiry of the deadline to restore the civil rule.

*** The apex court gave powers to the Chief Executive to legislate and amend the Constitution barring any amendment which can change the basic features such as independence of judiciary, federalism and parliamentary form of government, and Islamic provisions.