April, the cruelest month? | Najam Sethi

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Are things coming to a head in April?

The staff of the Prime Minister’s House has just been given a “bonus” equivalent to four months salary. This is unusual because bonuses and salary increments are normally given at the end of the financial year in June.This has fueled speculations that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is worried about being dislodged by the Pananaleaks judgment any day now and is therefore “wrapping up” domestic matters. A sweeping remark by one of the Pananaleaks judges — to the effect that the judgment will be a historic one that will be remembered for decades to come — has also put wind in the tail of the “Go Nawaz Go” brigade.

As if to confirm its detractors, the PMLN government has swung into high electioneering gear after the federal cabinet announced a series of “voter-friendly” measures. The ban on recruitment into government has been lifted; over 50,000 government employees have been “regularized”; new housing schemes for the have-nots have been announced in important political constituencies; the moratorium on gas connections and new gas supply schemes in rural areas has been lifted; a friendly Hajj policy has been unveiled; and so on. All this follows on the heels of a whirlwind tour of remote areas by Mr Sharif during which he focused on highlighting the “good development work” done by his regime despite the disruption caused by conspiratorial dharnas, strikes and protests by opposition parties.

The truth is that it has been a rough ride for Mr Sharif so far and there is no respite in sight. He was nearly toppled on two occasions during the“#ThankYouRaheelSharif” period. Then Panamaleaks hit him like a bolt from the blue. In between, he has had heart surgery and gall bladder problems. All this while, he has had to contend with angry protests over “missing political persons”, souring relations with neighbours India and Afghanistan, power shortages, civil-military tensions, terrorism, and constant attempts by the judiciary to clip his wings. The worst cut of all is that the development agenda pegged to his pet CPEC project and brownie points by the World Bank and IMF over the prospect of 5% growth in the economy are threatened by a rising gap in the current account deficit that is threatening to lead to currency devaluation, higher interest rates and inflation.

The impending judgment in the Panamaleaks case could unravel Nawaz Sharif’s future. But there is no assurance that the next elections will be more ordered and less controversial than the last ones which led to acute instability and destabilization. Despite four years of judicial commissions and negotiations over electoral law reform, the political parties have still not come to any meaningful agreement over the way forward. At last count, the all-parties parliamentary committee tasked to prepare a bill had still not overcome dozens of objections posed by the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). Indeed, at one stage the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) felt so harassed by the PTI that it walked out of the committee and threatened to hold the party in contempt.

The problem has arisen because the PTI is seeking not just to change the law in the interests of more fair play and transparency but also to tilt the scales in its favour. For instance, it wants the ECP and caretaker governments to be approved by a parliamentary committee in which both houses of parliament and all mainstream parties are represented fairly rather than just the government and main opposition party as the law currently stands. This is fair. But it also wants the ECP to abolish the rules and restrictions on election funding and sources because its main funding comes from foreign donors and has been challenged in the ECP for lacking accountability and transparency. Similarly, its demand for a universal application of Electronic Voting Machines is misplaced. Most local and foreign experts insist that this should not be implemented without first learning from the results of pilot projects for correction and adjustment. Much the same sort of impracticality stems from its demand for biometric verification of all votes before a ballot paper is issued at every polling station. But its demand for the army to play a more intrusive role inside and outside polling stations is understandable given the suspicions attached to the role of civilian ROs from the judicial branch of the state. Much the same may be said about its insistence that fresh projects and development schemes should not be announced by sitting governments as “pre-election bribes” to voters after a date has been announced for holding elections. However, its proposal for mandatory vote recounts of runner-up candidates is only going to delay election results and create unnecessary controversies. Under the circumstances, the ECP’s frustration at the lack of consensus is understandable.

And so it goes on. The English poet TS Eliot wrote depressingly of longing and loss in “the cruelest month” of April. Nawaz Sharif could do worse by mixing memory with desire.