x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

President facing the pressure

Pakistan's government is facing mounting criticism as the country is racked by economic and security crises.

The Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, left, with Saudi King Abdullah, was criticised for taking an entourage of 200 to Saudi Arabia.
The Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, left, with Saudi King Abdullah, was criticised for taking an entourage of 200 to Saudi Arabia.

ISLAMABAD // Pakistan's government is facing mounting criticism as the country is racked by economic and security crises. The nine-month-old Pakistan People's Party government led by Asif Ali Zardari inherited security and economic troubles from Pervez Musharraf, the former president. However, it is in danger of losing popular support not only because of insecurity posed by pro-Taliban militants and inflation, but also by a worsening perception of its governance.

The PPP's secular, liberal ideological allies, such as prominent human rights worker Asma Jehangir, have criticised Mr Zardari over his choice and number of ministers. Among politicians and businessmen, rumours of large-scale government corruption have begun to circulate, particularly as plans are drawn up to privatise coal and gas resources. "When the country is facing the sort of problems that Pakistan is facing we need leadership that gives us some confidence that they know where they are going," said Cyril Almeida, a writer for Dawn, a Pakistani daily newspaper.

"There is a sense that the government has disappeared," he said. This month, 40 new ministers were sworn in, raising to 61 the number of posts in cabinet, which is expected to expand further still as Mr Zardari hands out ministries to other allies in his coalition government. The new posts included heads of new ministries for "initiatives" and for "postal services". "The matter of the 61 ministers is a sore point with many of Zardari's countrymen as he has followed time-honoured traditions and made the appointments not on merit or ability to do the job but purely as a pay-off or a reward or even a future investment," said Ardewshir Cowasjee, a prominent newspaper columnist. But the main bone of contention was the appointment of two politicians accused of supporting violence against women as cabinet ministers, causing outrage among human rights activists. The two new ministers are Hazar Khan Bijarani, who was charged with setting up a tribal council that awarded five young girls as compensation in a dispute, and Israrullah Zehri, who defended in parliament burying alive women in "honour killing" cases. This year, in response to news that three teenage girls had been buried alive for trying to choose their own husbands, Mr Bijarani told parliament: "These are centuries-old traditions, and I will continue to defend them. Only those who indulge in immoral acts should be afraid." Mr Bijarani, a PPP stalwart, whose case is still before the courts, was made the minister for education. Mr Zehri, who represents a nationalist party in the senate, has been made minister for postal services. The two appointments drew protests from human rights workers, including Ms Jehangir, who said the government had sacrificed the PPP's pro-women rights philosophy for political expediency. Ferzana Raja, a senior PPP member of parliament who has the rank of a minister, said Mr Bijarani had clarified his remarks. She said the PPP had launched full inquiries into crimes against women. "The jirga system has to be finished slowly," said Mr Bijarani by way of clarification. "When education spreads, then it will finish." The newspaper columnist Ardewshir Cowasjee asked: "Now, how do the women who sit in the cabinet with these two men, Zehri and Bijarani, react? They are silent. How can they bring themselves, in all good conscience, to even sit in the same room as these men who think in the manner in which they do, let alone agree to be their companions in cabinet?" The government has also come in for criticism over the cost of appointing such a large cabinet during times of economic hardship. Ahsan Iqbal, a spokesman for an opposition party, the Pakistan Muslim League, said the government had damaged its image by expanding the cabinet when "austerity was needed". He said the government's perceived profligacy was visible when Mr Zardari was accompanied by an entourage of 200 during a visit to Saudi Arabia on a recent aid-seeking mission. Mr Zardari has been beset by "credibility issues" since taking office in September after he ousted Mr Musharraf. The widower of Benazir Bhutto, Mr Zardari was dubbed "Mr 10 Per Cent" on account of alleged kickbacks on government contracts during his wife's two tenures as prime minister. Despite overseeing a transition to democracy by removing Mr Musharraf, some of Mr Zardari's own ideological allies have been disappointed in his reluctance to restore the chief justice who was sacked by the former military ruler and to shed some of his presidential powers. Murtaza Mughal, of Pakistan Economy Watch, a network of economists, echoed a widespread dig at Mr Zardari when he suggested that the president set an example by bringing into a Pakistan bank some of the millions he holds in bank accounts abroad. The bad perception of the government has been deepened by peccadilloes common to Pakistani politics. One minister, Khurshid Shah, incurred popular wrath when he celebrated his son's wedding in electricity cut-prone Karachi by lighting up the entire road in front of his house. Hasan-Askari Rizvi, a senior political analyst, underscored that the government was not in danger of toppling, but that it had a created a "bad impression of itself". "It should be a matter of concern. They should improve governance, which so far has been from mediocre to poor by bringing relief to the common man and improving basic law and order," he said. iwilkinson@thenational.ae