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April 21, 2016

A counter-productive response


April 21, 2016

Both are here, and both must stay: the government and the PanamaLeaks issue. At this point, the exit of neither is going to help us uncover the dubious financial affairs of Pakistan’s elite. Messages like the following that are doing the rounds on WhatsApp are best ignored as low-level ineffective propaganda.

“This came from a very reliable family sources: The prime minister has been asked to either resign or step aside from his official position till his name is cleared by the establishment after thorough unbiased investigation. He was stopped to attend [sic] official functions and issue orders as PM before he proceeded to London. He will not return to his office till investigations are not complete to the satisfaction of the establishment. Then depending on the results either he will either return honourably or resign. Meanwhile the federal cabinet and the provincial governments will continue to work normally.”

While this is silly anonymous stuff there is a tendency to use this as the basis of analysis by all sides – those wanting to see the government go and those who want to make us believe that some ‘agency’ is working to oust the government. At a time when all aspects of the issue of the Panama leaks are being discussed with candour this message is sheer nonsense. So why publicise it by printing it here? Perhaps because there is a need to name and shame the content of this message. Pakistan’s political experience tells us that conspiracies bloom under the shades of creepy silence.

Now to the Panama issue. The prime minister is back. He now faces the tough and politically critical question of how to proceed in tackling the on-going fall-out from the Panama Leaks.

This issue proliferated and took roots during the days of Ziaul Haq. Then stories first appeared in the global media on some of Pakistan’s millionaire generals.

Zia then got Pakistan’s commercial classes to give him political and ideological cover. It was these individuals too who gave Zia his political longevity. Of the many lethal fall-outs of the Zia era is the intricate yet widespread linkage between power and pelf. The longer the military ruler and Washington’s primary partner in the international jihad extended his stay in power, the weaker the state and institutions of Pakistan became.

Others followed the same pattern and today the powerful and influential are rich, while the ‘poor’ state, short on cash and long on liabilities, begs for loans within and globally.

It is in this context that the questions about the prime minister and his family’s finances and assets must be answered. Equally, the sitting Lahore high court judge and the retired judge too must respond to questions of financial correctness that arise within Pakistan’s legal frameworks set by watchdog bodies including the Election Commission of Pakistan and the FBR.

Yet again, recalling how other governments have responded to the Panama Leaks is helpful to understand what the Panama Papers reveal and reinforce. Several prime ministers and ministers – from Argentina to Spain – have resigned and inquiry commissions have been set up in several countries. Global leaders have also decided to strengthen mechanisms to avoid tax evasion and money laundering facilitated by overseas tax havens. In fact the financial heads of G-20 are working on proposals to get the identities of the real owners of shell companies and to get international tax havens blacklisted.

What is happening in Pakistan? After the proactive step of Prime Minister’s son Hussain Nawaz giving interviews to local channels taking ownership of the Park Lane property, the PM himself addressed the nation and announced an inquiry commission to be led by a retired judge. The PM had urged those with evidence against him and his family of financial impropriety to come and appear before the commission. Finance Minister Ishaq Dar insists the TORs already prepared by the government will ensure that a completely independent inquiry will be conducted.

Response from the PML-N has varied. Some loyalists have gone on the offensive, in some cases resorting to cat-calls. The more serious-minded within the ruling party believe that focusing on development projects will help keep public support for PML-N intact and also divert public attention from the questions flowing from the Panama Papers. Some in the government camp are confident that the absence of a consensus within the opposition camp over what inquiry mechanism will be acceptable will help deflect political pressure.

This calculation is erroneous. The matter fortunately has staying power provided to it by the continuous media attention. The Panama Papers also provide Pakistan the opportunity to fix the chronic fault of impropriety that remains embedded in the financial matters of not only the ruling elite but beyond them too.

In Pakistan all the required laws exist, even to open offshore accounts when required. And some people abide by the law. For example, not so long ago the Lucky Cement owners, with the permission of the State Bank of Pakistan, opened an offshore account for business transactions. But these exceptions do not make the rule.

The towers of greed in our country are a tribute to the robustness of corruption that the powerful and the influential are able to perpetuate.

Now is the time to delve into the problem with an iron hand and within the available legal parameters.

The entire opposition is opposed to an inquiry commission under a retired judge. The government has no option but to engage with the opposition to work on a consensus mechanism for getting answers from the PM’s family and from others named in the papers regarding questions about asset concealment, tax evasion and withholding information from the Election Commission. The Panama Papers link the prime minister’s children including his political heir Maryam Nawaz to Nescoll, Nielson, Coomber & Hangon Property – all offshore companies.

The prime minister must write to the chief justice of Pakistan requesting him to head the inquiry. Such an inquiry will have to factor in the questions raised repeatedly by the president of the Supreme Court Bar Association about the jurisdiction of such an inquiry. Interestingly the SCBA claims it has already set up a task force to work on ways forward on holding an inquiry on the Panama Papers.

Clearly the government’s current response to the Panama Leaks appears bogus and will prove counter-productive. Perhaps the London-returned prime minister will understand this hard fact and retrace his steps on the commission.

The writer is a senior journalist.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @nasimzehra


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