Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Pakistan's Prime Minister Concentrates on Constitutional Amendments to Shore Up Government

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

Pakistan's Prime Minister Concentrates on Constitutional Amendments to Shore Up Government

Article excerpt

Pakistan's Prime Minister Concentrates on Constitutional Amendments to Shore Up Government

The law-and-order situation inside the country remains precarious, uncertainties in the city of Karachi persist and Pakistan's economy is far from healthy. However, Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif, whose Muslim League party enjoys a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, remains preoccupied with tampering with the country's constitution to consolidate his political position. In doing so, however, he pays careful attention to the military, which has exercised direct rule in Pakistan for almost half of the country's half-century of life.


It is not too long ago that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif forced the retirement of Army Chief of Staff Gen. Jehangir Karamat, who had publicly sought the involvement of the army in the civil administration to lend credibility to the government and to ward off corruption. In an about-face, Sharif has now invited the same military to join the administration and help improve the efficiency of his government, especially in the service- and revenue-generating sectors.

Non-payment of service charges for water and power supply by government bodies and the public is endemic in Pakistan. Defaults of payment on taxes and non-repayment of bank loans are chronic in the country. In fact, both Prime Minister Sharif and his predecessor and leader of the opposition, Benazir Bhutto, are guilty of such acts. As many as 35,000 men in uniform, therefore, have been appointed to run the Water and Power Development Authority (WAPDA) and to collect the old dues.

Similarly, numerous army officers have been detailed to different departments of the government to rid the bureaucracy of corruption and inefficiency. On the negative side, this is an acknowledgment that the civil administration is unable to deliver services on its own, a blow to the morale of civil employees who in many cases are honest and know their jobs, and it erodes the defined functions of the military and the civil society, and could end up corrupting the army too. On the other hand, it provides some breathing space and political security to Sharif's government against possible military intervention.


An official government announcement reported: "At least 17 people, including 4 children, were killed inside a mosque in Multan, Punjab, during the early morning prayers on Jan. 4, 1999, when gunmen entered the mosque and opened fire." In fact, the victims were all Shi'i Muslims who had congregated to start the day's fast in the month of Ramadan, and it was no stray incident. In Punjab province Shi'i-Sunni killings are a continuing problem, with the government apparently unable to stop the endless carnage.

This massacre was followed by a bomb blast that destroyed a bridge at the time when the prime minister's motorcade normally crosses. Whether the prime minister and his family, who were late that day, were the target of the bomb or not, reprisals in such exchanges of violence are now commonplace.

Crises in Karachi continue. The military governor and the military courts have cracked down heavily on the rank-and-file of the Muhajir Quami Movement (MQM), a party of the local Urdu-speaking population who came to Pakistan from various parts of India when the subcontinent was partitioned in 1947. Hundreds have been jailed, with summary sentences passed against some. More arrest warrants have been issued against mostly MQM leaders.

Bank holdups, car-jackings and cases of banditry remain unabated. Military and para-military units have been raiding neighborhoods to search for and seize hidden arms, and in some cases have faced armed resistance. Homes of suspects have been demolished. In 1998 more than 650 people were killed in Karachi, which remains the country's commercial and industrial center. The infrastructure of the metropolitan area, which is home to 13 million people, is crumbling. The water is contaminated, sanitation is in poor shape, electric power supply is interrupted for hours on a daily basis, and inflation is skyrocketing. To date the government has been unable to solve any of these crises.

The Nawaz Sharif government instead appears preoccupied with enacting its constitutional amendments. While his party has been able to pass the proposed changes in the National Assembly, where it has a majority, it has not succeeded in the Senate. As a result, eight amendments and bills are pending and the prime minister has asked for a joint session of the parliament to resolve the issue.

The amendments include establishing shariah (Islamic) laws in the country, delegating greater authority to the prime minister, and further curtailing the powers of the president. In seeking these constitutional changes, Sharif is following a well-traveled path. Predecessors Ayub Khan, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Zia ul-Haq all tried hard in earlier decades to strengthen their powers, but in doing so left the country with more problems than each of them found.


On Jan. 15, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) announced disbursement of $575 million to Pakistan. The IMF announcement also disclosed the conditionalities to which Pakistan had agreed, noting: "The government of Pakistan is in the process of making substantial efforts to broaden the tax base, revamp tax administration, and implement restructuring plans for the energy sector and other public enterprises. The government intends to move forward with the privatization of financial institutions and trade liberalization and make further progress in developing market-based foreign exchange and payments system."

Going beyond the financial management theme, the IMF added: "The government has initiated efforts to increase transparency, enforce the rule of law and improve governance." While benchmarks were indicated with time frames for their realization, there was no way of knowing how political management would be evaluated.

Even the figures quoted for the 1997 indicators were questionable and the projections were equally dubious. However, although many believed Pakistan had bartered its sovereign authority for the relief package, the country may have achieved only a temporary respite from disaster. The government said that Pakistan would receive around $1.11 billion by the end of 2001.

A meeting of the Paris Club, consisting of bilateral donor countries, is scheduled for late January to consider Pakistan's request for rescheduling of its medium- and long-term debt servicing payments. After that, the London Club, consisting of private-sector lenders, will meet to consider a similar request from Pakistan. Indications are that with the support and assurance of the IMF and the World Bank, Pakistan may get favorable treatment at both the meetings.


The decade-old issue of the sale of F-16 aircraft for which Pakistan had paid over half a billion dollars was largely resolved when Washington disclosed on Jan. 1 that it is paying $324.6 million in cash and $60 million worth of wheat to Pakistan. The U.S. promised to find other sources to return the balance of the debt. Part of the money came from an agreement by New Zealand to pay $105 million to lease-purchase the aircraft for a 10-year period. This arrangement has avoided the possibility of Pakistan going to court to have its money returned.

In a Jan. 16 editorial, The Washington Post wrote: "It was always bizarre that the United States held up the F-16s intended for Pakistan, a friendly country whose defense has been an American strategic concern for half a century...What happened, of course, was that American nonproliferation policy got in the way [but] the policy actually contributed to proliferation. The holdup contributed to inclining Pakistan to diminish reliance on uncertain military suppliers such as the United States and to tighten military supply links to countries such as China."

Articles may be reprinted with proper attribution, except for photos and cartoons. Article copyright American Educational Trust.

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