DAWN - Features; April 10, 2003

Published April 10, 2003

President’s meetings sound alarm bells: COMMENT

By Raja Asghar

ISLAMABAD: After taking flak for months with relative calm, President Pervez Musharraf has launched a political counter-offensive, sounding alarm bells for his opponents as well as loyalists.

His latest meetings with parliamentarians have signalled he is not ready to countenance any challenge to his controversial powers that are under attack from opposition parties but only feebly defended by his supporters, political sources said on Wednesday.

But they said hard postures taken by both sides would only lead to more political confrontation and dampen hopes for a compromise between the ruling coalition and opposition parties in parliament over the Legal Framework Order (LFO).

Recent special sessions of both the 342-seat National Assembly and the 100-seat Senate have shown how the opposition benches can use their sharp tongues with telling effect.

While the large opposition has threatened not to allow normal parliamentary proceedings until the LFO controversy is settled, the treasury benches — including turncoats from other parties — have yet to put up a credible defence for Gen Musharraf.

A realization of this handicap of Prime Minister Zafarullah Khan Jamali’s coalition seems to have compelled the president to end the political isolation into which he had gone since the new civilian government took over last November and personally take charge, political sources said.

What was officially given to the press after his meetings with coalition partners from Monday to Wednesday showed that the president was firm in retaining his power and his allies reassured him that they would stand by him.

But a test of their backing will come when the opposition parties again raise their voices against the LFO during the National Assembly that begins on April 15 and a Senate session, requisitioned by opposition parties on April 5, is called by April 19 within the 14-day deadline.

Opposition sources said they saw the president’s move as a signal that insistence on clipping his powers could lead to an impasse and possible dissolution of the National Assembly as a pressure tactic to subdue the opposition at a time when world attention is focused on Iraq.

“If the opposition wants to pack (up) the assembly, then it is a different matter,” the prime minister said on Tuesday about opposition demands that the LFO must be passed by both houses of parliament by two-thirds majority to become part of the constitution.

But a spokesman for the opposition People’s Party Parliamentarians (PPP) dismissed the warning as “no more than a hollow threat ... by a desperate regime”, and said the government itself would be the greatest loser if the threat were carried out.

“I think it is an attempt on the part of the government to break the unity of the opposition parties,” PPP spokesman Senator Farhatullah Babar said of presidential moves, accusing the government of using both the carrot and stick to achieve its objectives.

“We apprehend a number of warnings and strong-arm tactics against the PPP,” he told Dawn.

But, he said: “We are determined to oppose the LFO come hailstorm or sunshine.”

The PML-N sees the president’s position as indefensible. “No one can defend him, he has made blunders,” PML-N spokesman Siddiqueul Farooq said, accusing the president of flouting his own roadmap by not inducting a civilian government within the three-year deadline set by the Supreme Court and failing to transfer full powers to Prime Minister Jamali.

“Fair is foul and foul is fair for Musharraf,” he said.

The president has met delegations from the PML-Q and the party’s allies in the coalition from Monday to Wednesday and is also likely to invite the Muttahida Majlis-i-Amal, alliance of six religio-political parties as well as the PPP and PML-N for similar talks.

Sardar Mahtab, a born-again politician: DATELINE PESHAWAR

By Ismail Khan

In December 1999, former NWFP chief minister Sardar Mahtab Ahmad Khan was picked up from his Abbottabad house and brought over to Peshawar, and locked up in a cell at a police station. An elected chief minister was given the same treatment that is usually accorded to criminals.

What, however, followed was even worse. He was put in a very small cell at the police lines established in what then was the MPAs hotel adjacent to the offices of the Regional Accountability Bureau with only one blanket.

He recalls how he had to fold and roll over a blanket to make a cushion for himself and when an officer came over and asked whether there was anything he could do for him, “my blood boiled.”

What an experience for a man who was widely seen as a stiff-necked chief minister, who would love to twirl his moustaches and bully his bureaucrats.

He is a changed man now. He is no longer the man he used to be. His incarceration in the small cell in the police lines and the time he spent at the dreaded Attock Fort along with that ‘great leader’ of his, Mian Nawaz Sharif, has transformed him from what he was thought to be — an arrogant man — into a person full of humility.

He is a born-again Muslim. “I had forgotten Allah,” he reminisces. His two-and-a-half years of prison at Attock Fort and later in Attock jail have taught him certain lessons. He tends to philosophize, something he loves to do. Taking a deep puff on his cigarette, he still indulges in intellectual discourse. But accompanying that and his new-found humility, there is a also a tinge of bitterness. He has reasons to be bitter.

On the day of the military coup in October 1999, Mahtab Ahmad was picked up along with his special assistant, Maj Amir of ISI fame, from Kabal in Swat where he had gone for some official engagement, driven to Peshawar and placed under house arrest.

What followed were cheap attempts at maligning a man who even his detractors would acknowledge had given one of the best administrations the province had ever seen. The media managers of the military government worked overtime to cook up and plant stories. And there were ready takers. He was charged with trying to siphon off a huge cheque shortly before the dismissal of the federal and provincial governments. He was accused of gun-running, involved in a land scam in Abbottabad, and there were stories of his ‘palatial’ house in Abbottabad and the contract of registration plates given to a private contractor. And finally his involvement in the so-called wheat scam — awarding a contract to a higher bidder.

Whether Mahtab Ahmad’s implication in a corruption case and his subsequent incarceration had anything to do with his tiff over military fair that he had refused to allow or it was something else may probably be never known. What, however, we do know is that there was frank and honest admission in the military regime soon afterwards that they had chosen the wrong man to whip.

The case went on for a good two years. Ghafoor Jadoon, the minister for food in the Sardar Mahtab government, was made an approver, despite the fact that he was the one who had presided over the meeting that had approved the wheat contract. The Pindi bench in its judgment made a note of this fact. But as is always the case, Ghafoor Jadoon was let off and Mahtab Ahmad was convicted and sentenced to 14 years in prison by an accountability court. That judgment was overturned last week. There was no evidence against him, the court said.

If it is any consolation, Mahtab Ahmad believes the judgment has vindicated him and the truth has prevailed. He felt betrayed by his own party leader who left him in Attock Fort and chose to leave the country without giving an inkling of his deal with the military, but feels God has been kind to him. He has become a senator of the party which has only five MPAs in the NWFP Assembly and now the court has given him a clean chit. But will this judgment compensate for the humiliation he suffered?

Ironic as it may seem, the same set of journalists who churned out story after story reporting on his alleged corruption and wrong-doing are now praising him for his courage in enduring the hardship of prison.

The accountability campaign since has followed a wayward course. Some of those charged with corruption and ‘plunder of national wealth’ have either been bailed out or the accused simply let off for want of evidence. The so-called multi-million mega Ghazi Barotha scam has proved to be a non-starter. The World Bank came out with a strong reaction. Fifteen of those accused of making money out of the water and power project were released for lack of evidence and an official who was initially charged with causing a loss of Rs350 million has now been asked to pay Rs120,000.


Elite politics

Elite politics

For most part, Pakistan’s fractious politics has seen fierce govt-opposition conflict and mutual efforts to upend each other.


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