Crumbs of neutrality? – Abbas Nasir

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THE fears of sceptical Pakistanis are easily allayed, with the latest prime example being the stance taken by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) in the presidential reference hearings before the Supreme Court and its decision over the alleged rigging by the governing PTI in NA-75.

Almost all analysts, this columnist included, described the ECP stand as a watershed moment in the country’s history. Some went as far as to make optimistic predictions of credible elections in the future based on the independence and courage displayed by the ECP in these two instances.

Given our history of dysfunctional and often compromised institutions, it was not surprising that so many people became upbeat about the future prospects at the first hint of a positive sign. But wouldn’t it be imprudent to let our imagination run away with it?

This question has to be asked. Let me explain why. The pace at which the ECP has moved hardly inspires confidence, for example, in the former PTI leader Akbar S. Babar’s complaint in what is known as the PTI foreign funding case or the dual nationality charge against Minister Faisal Vawda.

Admittedly, Mr Babar’s complaint may require a painstaking trawl through dozens of bank accounts, transactions and forensic accounting skills but even then the time it is taking the ECP to examine the evidence is enough to raise a brow or two.

As for Mr Vawda, not only is he one of the prime minister’s favourites he also has powerful friends in the security establishment. So the fact that despite having fined him several thousand rupees for non-appearance and a prima facie open-and-shut case, the ECP has not ruled in the matter.

And now he has been cleared to run for the Senate. It is likely he’ll be elected. The moment he takes oath as a member of the upper house he ceases being an MNA. Which may make the case against him infructuous, saving him from facing disqualification as a senator under Article 62-63.

All this is not to say that the recent turn of events has not shown the ECP in a positive light. Equally, it is important to see issues in perspective in order to avoid reading more into developments than merited and averting serious disappointment in the months to come.

By the same token one must assess the opposition’s new-found realisation that the establishment has suddenly become neutral, and ask if this view is able to withstand scrutiny. To me, it is neither evident nor clear why such a change of heart may have happened. One can speculate, of course.

The then PML-N government, which spearheads the opposition PDM today, had a falling out with the security establishment on account of mainly two factors. The first was the attempt by Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to bring to justice former military ruler Gen Pervez Musharraf.

While the general’s first trampling of the Constitution in 1999 was sanctified by the Supreme Court, his second transgression in 2007 was not. This laid him open to treason charges. Initially, Mr Sharif seemed reluctant but then gave in to the pressure exerted by then chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry.

Predictably, the establishment did not take kindly to this. The second major factor was Nawaz Sharif’s insistence to the security establishment that the policies of the past with regard to supporting ‘patriotic’ militant groups had no room in the post 9/11 world.

It was true that Pakistan’s immense utility post 9/11 to the West was no more. This was 2016 and challenges such as the FATF were cropping up. That the then prime minister asked the security leadership to change tack and the story reached the media was seen as a public rebuke, enough to trigger the process of his downfall and forced exit from office. Panama Papers provided the perfect pretext.

The civil-military leaders today take pride in being on the ‘same page’ on FATF. Ironically, the opportunity for a head start was missed in 2016. Complex policy changes to comply with FATF demands have been rolled out and yet in early 2021 the country has not come off the watch list.

Against this backdrop the PDM leaders now say the establishment has suddenly become neutral. It perhaps feels to some that the campaign where Nawaz Sharif and Maryam Nawaz Sharif did not shy away from calling a spade a spade may have put some powerful detractors on the back foot.

Is that really the case? There is no denying that this changed narrative got considerable traction in central Punjab which is always significant, being closer to home than voices of defiance in Khairpur Nathan Shah in Sindh, Awaran in Balochistan or even the merged Fata districts in KP.

But let’s be honest. The opposition campaign was far from making a dent in the pre-eminence of powerful institutions. A few crumbs may have been offered but is that neutrality? It is not corruption or even mismanagement which imperils elected politicians; it is asserting civilian supremacy.

Look at Nawaz Sharif’s political evolution. In the period he was amassing his (currently controversial) fortune all through the 1980s and partly 1990s, he remained the establishment’s favourite as the patriotic alternative to the defiant, headstrong Benazir Bhutto.

The means through which he and his family became immensely wealthy did not become a sty in anyone’s eye. But, yes, every aspect of his business and personal empire became questionable when he tried to exercise his constitutional authority; and worse still when he came of age as a democrat.

Believe me I’d be happy to eat my words if this ‘neutrality’ is actually realised and manifests itself in policy changes. If it does, who will not jump for joy as it would translate into empowerment of the people of Pakistan, stability, prosperity? I will believe it when I see it.