Money Matters

Growing challenges

March 12, 2018
By Zeeshan Haider


Last month, the Supreme Court of Pakistan took a rightful decision to dismiss a petition filed by the opposition politician, Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, seeking disqualification of Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi on accusations of corruption in the award of multi-billion dollar liquefied natural gas (LNG) deal with Qatar.

At a time, when the country is already going through a period of political uncertainty, any adverse ruling on the fate of the sitting prime minister would have added to the polarisation in Pakistan.

While dismissing the petition, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar maintained that the court refrains to step into such matters as any such intervention in the past had augured bad for the country.

He made these remarks in reference to the court’s rulings on Pakistan Steels Mills, Rental Power Projects as well as the Reko Deq cases.

Litigation in such cases has cost Pakistan dearly in the past. Such litigations not only inflicted losses worth millions of dollars to the national exchequer, but also discouraged private, particularly foreign investors, from putting in their capital into the country.

It started in the 1990s when the then opposition under the leadership of Nawaz Sharif opposed International Power Producers (IPPs) policy of the government of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto which attracted huge foreign investment in the energy sector of the country. Sharif alleged that huge corruption was involved in the award of contracts to the IPPs.

The dispute continued until Sharif’s second government gave a revised power policy but by that time Pakistan’s image as a safe haven for private investment was so badly hammered that the new policy could hardly attract any tangible investment.

Another major blow for the confidence of the private investors came when the Supreme Court of Pakistan, led by Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry struck down a deal for the privatisation of the Pakistan Steel Mills in 2006. The decision was taken without any regard to the basic principle of law that the judiciary should not transgress into the policymaking domain of the executive branch of the state.

In 2012, the same judge leading a two-member bench declared the Rental Power Projects signed by the then Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP) government illegal and ordered inquiry against then water and power minister Raja Pervez Ashraf, who later became the prime minister, and concerned officials. That case is still pending before the court.

A few months later, Chaudhry also struck down the multi-billion dollar Reko Diq deal exploration and mining of copper and gold reserves in Balochistan for being in conflict with the laws of the country.

All these decisions not only prompted concerned foreign firms to file lawsuits against Pakistan in the international courts causing loss of millions of dollars to the national kitty, but also turned potential investors away from Pakistan.

Throughout the world, it is anti-corruption watchdogs who keep an oversight on such transactions to ensure transparency and the courts rarely make any direct interventions.

The chief justice has very rightly pointed out to the petitioner seeking disqualification of Prime Minister Abbasi that he should take his plea before the National Accountability Bureau, which is the appropriate forum to settle such matters.

“You know how much cost has been awarded by the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes in Karkey rental power project,” Justice Saqib Nisar said, while posing a question to Sheikh Rashid’s lawyer.

After handing down a decision that minimises judiciary’s intrusion into executive’s domain, one hopes that the judiciary in future would avoid to get entangled in such issues and leave it to the relevant forums to deal with them.

After such a landmark step, the judiciary in Pakistan should also steadily wriggle itself out of political cases.

Too much involvement of judiciary into the settlement of political cases not only detracts it from its basic duty of dispensing justice to the common people, but also emboldens political rivals to burden the courts with their petty disputes, deepening political uncertainty in the country which is harmful for the economic progress and development of Pakistan.

It is pity that at a time when the country is facing a major challenge in the shape of growing risk of being put on the terror watch-list, the entire nation, media as well as the political leadership and the government are obsessed with the outcome of the high-profile political cases in the courts.

It is heartening to see Pakistan getting a three-month reprieve from the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) to vote on the matter. But the danger of being put on the watch list of countries harbouring and abetting terrorists is far from over.

Any attempt to put Pakistan on the watch list of terror financing nations runs the risk of complicating the country’s dealings with the international financial institutions like the International Monetary Fund and World Bank.

In the wake of growing fears that Pakistan might face balance of payment crisis in the coming months due to sharp rise in its current account deficit and declining exports, Pakistan might have to resort to IMF for a bailout package, and it could face difficulties in extracting a favourable deal in case of its inclusion in the terror watch list.

It requires Pakistani leaders as well as policymakers to single-mindedly focus on this matter, but there is hardly any indication that this issue figures among the top priorities of any of the main political parties, which seem to be more interested in settling their political scores to prepare the pitch for their electoral battle later this year.

At this crucial time, the government should have organised parliamentary teams to visit important foreign capitals to lobby for Pakistan’s position. Though the frantic visits of the government ministers and advisors warded off the imminent danger of Pakistan being included in the watch list of terror financing nations, the danger is far from over and it would re-emerge in the coming weeks.

However, it seems that in the coming weeks the ruling party would be more occupied with the efforts to salvage its beleaguered leader from absolute ignominy following his disqualification to stay as prime minister and the party head, with hardly spare time left to concentration on matters of national importance.

With just few months left for the government to complete its term, it seems it would leave it for the care-taker government to handle FATF issue which is expected to come up for voting in June.

Elections are vital for the continuation of the democratic process, as Pakistan could not afford any delay or disruption in the continuation of the political process, but they should not distract attention of our rulers from the crucial challenges faced by the country.

The writer is a senior journalist based in Islamabad