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The chaos post Panama

The chaos post Panama

The gloves are off and it is a free for all. Politics is a dirty game in this country, but it has seldom been so ugly. In this no-holds-barred war of glib talk, the entire endeavour is to prove the rival more corrupt. While parliament is rendered dysfunctional, the apex court has become the battleground. The court, too, is subjected to criticism if the ruling is not in one party’s favour.

It may appear that the fate of many political leaders now hinges on court rulings in the petitions filed against them by opponents. Meanwhile, the democratic process is descending into chaos. The order sending an elected prime minister home for a misdemeanour is not the cause of a political order devoid of any moral bearing, rather it is reflective of one.

While the opposition celebrates Sharif’s inglorious exit, the ruling party is playing the ‘victim of an inexplicable conspiracy’ card. Sharif’s supporters are also waiting to see the fall from grace of Imran Khan and other senior members of the PTI implicated in cases of financial wrongdoing. Every side is trying to rock the boat that they themselves are in.

All rationality is lost in the haze of the politics of revenge.

All rationality is lost in the haze of the politics of revenge. There is much talk about democracy, public mandate and accountability, but one doubts that anyone is being taken seriously. The banality of these platitudes has been starkly exposed in the political soap opera that is being currently played out.

Indeed, the application of Article 62 of the Constitution and the Representation of the People Act, 1976, by the Supreme Court to remove the former prime minister has led to questions of how many public office holders and members of the National Assembly and provincial assemblies can come up to the standards enunciated in Articles 62 and 63 if strictly applied. Surely, there will be very few.

So, the opposition political leaders who are rejoicing in Sharif’s unceremonious ouster must see whether their own accounts are in order before they too come under the axe. The cases against Imran Khan and Jehangir Tareen are already pending in the Supreme Court and the verdict is likely to come out soon. That may also open the floodgates of petitions that could overwhelm the top court. Given the extremely volatile situation stemming from the daily theatrics outside the court it could put the judiciary under pressure.

It was amusing to see lawmakers rushing to file their tax returns in the wake of the Panama case against the Sharif family. According to some reports, there has been a massive hike in taxes paid by lawmakers, from a 15 to 3,852 per cent rise in individual cases during this period. Indeed, it is a positive development. But the majority of the legislators still do not seem too bothered about what they believe is a temporary phase. They may be right given the lacklustre approach of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and other state institutions responsible for law enforcement.

The annual tax directories for parliamentarians shed some light on the level of tax compliance by the lawmakers. Surely, the lifestyle of most of them is in stark contrast to what their tax declarations indicate.

Few lawmakers are in the high tax bracket, notwithstanding their superior living standards. The money paid by most of them is peanuts despite the fact that many are believed to be among the richest people in the country. According to reports, some senators pay an income tax in the range of Rs17,000 to Rs50,000.

Such low tax compliance raises questions about the commitment of our political leaders to enforcing the tax laws they are supposed to oversee. Pakistan has a chronically low rate of income tax collection as tax evasion has become the norm and is hardly looked upon as a crime.

Thus it is not surprising that it is estimated that less than 1pc of the population files its taxes. Income tax evasion is particularly high among the wealthiest, leaving the country with one of the lowest tax-to-GDP ratios in South Asia. One certainly cannot blame the people for that when our rulers and lawmakers themselves do not set an example to follow. Indeed, the problem is not limited to lawmakers but extends to the entire ruling elite. Senior civil and military officials too are seen as part of it. A major reason is that law enforcement is much weaker when it comes to the rich and powerful.

Surely, it is not just about low tax compliance, but also about politicians living beyond their known means. That applies to both the government and the opposition leaders.

There are many who conceal their wealth in a clear violation of ECP rules. Yet they, unlike the prime minister, might escape being penalised under ROPA and Article 62. Certainly, there must be stricter accountability rules applied to the holder of the top public office. But it must not be seen as a selective exercise. The process of accountability must not be perceived as a one-time action targeting a particular person or a party. It should be viewed as a normal process of law enforcement across the board and not just limited to politicians.

Corruption is deeply rooted in our society and one cannot blame only the politicians for it. The security establishment that has ruled the country for so much of its existence is responsible for most of its ills. Eyebrows are rightly raised if the generals remain untouched.

It is, indeed, an extremely depressing state of affairs when the apex court is seen as a venue for settling political scores. What is needed is the reform of the entire law-enforcement system to make it more autonomous and ensure that it remains outside the influence of the government. This is one lesson we must learn from the Panama scandal. The Supreme Court must not be approached for settling every issue. The main responsibility lies with the political leadership. Democracy cannot be sustained without the rule of law and without making parliament more effective as an institution.

Dawn

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