x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Cabinet sackings lead to crisis in Pakistan

Government narrowly loses its parliamentary majority after a religious party withdrew from the governing coalition over dismissal of one of its ministers.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's government yesterday narrowly lost its parliamentary majority after a religious party withdrew from the governing coalition in protest at the sacking of one of its ministers.

Yousaf Raza Gilani, the Pakistani prime minister, issued a one-line administrative order dismissing Hamid Saeed Kazmi and Azam Khan Swati, respectively the ministers for religious affairs, and for science and technology.

The order gave no explanation for the dismissals.

Mr Kazmi is a member of the ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP), while Mr Swati belongs to the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam (JUI), a religious party with support in the western provinces of Balochistan and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.

The two ministers, scholars from rival schools of subcontinent-based Sunni Muslim thought, had traded accusations of corruption and negligence over the arrangements made for Pakistani pilgrims during the Haj.

Mr Gilani had ordered the two to cease fire, but was defied by Mr Swati, who submitted documents to the Supreme Court last week in support of corruption allegations against Mr Kazmi.

The Supreme Court initiated public-interest proceedings on its own on December 3, after media reports of corruption in the awarding of contracts for the accommodation of Pakistani pilgrims. Video footage broadcast by independent cable news channels showed many pilgrims were accommodated in squalor and not provided transportation to the pilgrimage sites.

Mr Kazmi later admitted that corruption was prevalent in the religious affairs ministry, but said illegal practices, such as accepting kickbacks from travel agents, predated his appointment as minister.

The court ordered the government to launch an immediate investigation and the federal investigation agency (FIA) has since arrested Rao Shakeel Ahmed, the official responsible for making Haj arrangements, who had retired before the scandal erupted.

On Monday, the court again intervened.

Government lawyers informed the prime minister that the court did not consider a transparent investigation possible while suspected officials were still running the religious affairs ministry.

In a separate order yesterday, the prime minister suspended the secretary to the ministry of religious affairs, Sarwar Raza Qizalbash.

The FIA also froze the bank accounts of Mr Kazmi and the two ministry officials, with an order for the two to remain in the country. The sacking of the two ministers prompted a mini-reshuffle of the federal cabinet, with PPP ministers assuming responsibility for the two vacated portfolios.

The sackings caught both ministers by surprise.

Mr Kazmi, a religious scholar elected as a member of the PPP, said he found out while travelling to the eastern town of Sheikhupura to address a religious gathering.

In a televised speech at the ceremony, he said he was the victim of a media witch-hunt, and criticised Supreme Court judges for allegedly making prejudicial remarks against him during the hearing of the case.

Mr Swati's JUI party, a coalition partner of the PPP, said it had not been consulted on his dismissal.

The party's chief, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman, told journalists in Islamabad that he ordered the party's two other ministers to resign and would now sit in opposition.

The JUI holds seven seats in the 342-member National Assembly, the directly elected lower house of parliament, and 22 seats out of 100 seats in the Senate, members of which are elected by Pakistan's four provincial assemblies.

The withdrawal of its support leaves the government one vote short of a majority in the National Assembly, which elects the prime minister. The government has also lost its majority in the Senate, enabling the opposition to delay the passage of government-sponsored legislation.

Mr Rehman vowed to oppose a tax reform bill, which the government has struggled to persuade its coalition partners to support. The reforms are considered vital to expanding the government's small revenue base and documenting the economy, key demands of Pakistan's major creditors.

Asif Ali Zardari, Pakistan's president and the PPP chief, yesterday sent an emissary to Mr Rehman, in an attempt to placate him and restore the government's majority.