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Archive for April, 2008

The restoration of the judiciary continued to dominate news coverage of Pakistan on Wednesday, and media outlets reported that PML-N chief Nawaz Sharif and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari met for “a decisive round of talks” on the issue in Dubai. According to the Associated Press, “Pakistani leaders were up against a key deadline Wednesday in efforts to restore judges ousted by President Pervez Musharraf and end a spat that has strained their month-old coalition government.”

Nawaz reportedly flew to Dubai on Tuesday for the talks, since the 30-day deadline for the restoration of the judiciary [the Muree Declaration] is set to expire today. Although the one-time rivals agreed in March to push through a parliamentary resolution to restore dozens of judges removed by Musharraf last year, the AFP noted their dispute “resurfaced when the PPP insisted the reinstatement of the judges, including former chief justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry, be done via a constitutional package that includes plans for judicial reforms,” [see “Zardari Goes Back on his [Judicial] Word?” for more background]. The evident division spurred media speculation over fractures in the ruling coalition, and Dawn reported today, “Leaders of the two parties have for the first time openly admitted that the coalition governments at the Center and in Punjab were facing a serious threat of falling apart on the issue of judges.” Before he left for Dubai, Nawaz told reporters he “would try his best” to save the coalition, but also noted, “The integrity of the country will remain intact only if the judges are restored. Survival of Pakistan and of democracy will become a dream if the judges are not restored.” Just to note the divergence in the two leaders’ rhetoric, Zardari told GEO News Monday, “We were not given a mandate for restoration of judges. People voted for us to save Pakistan and to change the system.”

The potential collapse of the ruling coalition was further highlighted in a separate article released by The News today, which cited an anonymous PML-N minister, who said, “We have been pushed to the wall where we have no alternative but walk out of the cabinet.” The news agency added,

“Nawaz Sharif has departed for Dubai to make another last-ditch effort to save the coalition after his representatives failed to convince PPP Co-chairman Asif Zardari to agree to the reinstatement of the deposed judges. However, his mission has few chances of meeting with success. He is going to finally convey to Zardari that it would be impossible for him to keep his nominees in the cabinet if the dismissed judges did not return as committed by both the parties in the Murree Accord.”

Although the PML-N is unlikely to sever all ties with the PPP, there may be severe ramifications if the coalition cannot come to an agreement over the oft-mentioned judiciary issue. The Pakistani lawyers’ movement has already threatened to protest if the restoration does not take place, and this could further undermine the credibility of the new government. One only wonders what Musharraf could be thinking on the sidelines. [Image from The News]

UPDATE [1435 EST]: Media outlets reported that Zardari-Sharif talks have been completed “sans progress,” [see article in The News]. According to Reuters, a PML-N minister told reporters, “A lot of progress has been made … There is consensus on most issues but difference of opinion on some legal and constitutional matters.” With the Murree Declaration deadline just passed, Pakistan’s key leaders say they will make a “final decision” on the judiciary restoration issue tomorrow.

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On Tuesday, the restoration of the judiciary continued to dominate coverage among Pakistani media outlets. According to The News, the Pakistan People’s Party‘s co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari “went back on his word about [the] judges’ restoration in 30 days, agreed in the Murree Declaration.” According to the news agency, “Talking to Dr. Shahid Masood in a Geo News program “Meray Mutabiq”, he said what he along with Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Nawaz Sharif announced in Murree was just a political statement and it could be interpreted in different ways.” The judges, who were sacked on November 3, 2007, will be restored through a constitutional package likely to take two weeks. According to the Daily Times, Zardari asserted the restoration “was not a simple matter,” as it “involves the law and the constitution.” The newspaper added,

Zardari said he wanted not just judges but the institution of judiciary to be independent, and the reforms package his party had put together aimed at strengthening the judiciary. The constitutional package would ensure the incumbent judges worked together with the sacked ones, he added.”

Dawn newspaper reported that Zardari, during the Geo interview, made it clear that the reinstatement of the judges “was not the focus of his election campaign.”  The media outlet quoted him stating, “We were not given a mandate for restoration of judges. People voted for us to save Pakistan and to change the system.”

Media outlets that have been reporting on the judiciary reinstatement have noted the recent “deadlock” among the ruling coalition parties over the issue. According to BBC News, “Divisions have emerged within the two main governing parties, the PPP and the PML-N, over how much power the restored judges should have.” Moreover, there has been continued debate over whether deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry should get his position back, [see previous post on the division]. The judiciary talks have been taking place in Zardari’s residence in Dubai. PML-N has sent Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s brother, to represent the party at the talks. Although PML-N has called for an “unequivocal restoration of the judges,” the PPP has been more cautious. This division was evident in media coverage Monday. Despite Zardari terming the Murree Declaration, “a political agreement” that could be “interpreted in different ways,” a separate Daily Times article yesterday quoted Nawaz Sharif, who said he could extend the deadline for the restoration of sacked judges to three or four days if the ruling alliance “forced him” to do so.

Although the newly elected PM Gilani asserted yesterday that the four-party coalition has “unity in diversity,” these recently reported divisions instead emphasizes its fragility. Not surprisingly, the rhetoric that previously united many of these parties is quickly giving way to reality. [Image from The News]

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Infamously controversial Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a brief visit to Pakistan today, where he met with President Pervez Musharraf and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani in Islamabad during his four-hour stay. According to the Associated Press, “[The] Iranian and Pakistani leaders resolved issues related to a multibillion-dollar [$7.5 billion] gas pipeline project opposed by the United States during the Iranian president’s brief visit Monday to Pakistan…” The 2,600 km pipeline to India is expected “to earn Pakistan millions of dollars in transit fees,” reported BBC News today. The news agency cited the Associated Press of Pakistan (APP), which reported that Iran also agreed to supply Pakistan with 1100 MW of electricity, an announcement that is significant in light of Pakistan’s recent power crisis, [see previous post on power riots in Multan].

Later on Monday, Ahmadinejad traveled to Sri Lanka, and will follow with another high-profile visit to India on Tuesday. Iran’s South Asia tour was described by the Christian Science Monitor as an “outreach strategy” aimed at both “making energy deals and curbing Western influence.” Although media outlets today emphasized the Pakistan leg of the tour, the Monitor noted Iran’s biggest challenge on the trip to counter U.S. influence and “rekindle diplomatic relations” would be with India.

M.J. Gohel, a security analyst and director of the Asia-Pacific Foundation in London, noted, “India is very short on energy, so there are economic reasons for India to maintain a working relationship with Iran…However India’s long-term and strategic relationship is definitely with Washington, and I think that has been made very, very clear.” Nevertheless, India does have a stake in the aforementioned gas pipeline, “which is meant to deliver 30 million cubic meters of Iranian gas daily each to Pakistan and India,” reported the Monitor. BBC News added,

The gas pipeline is seen as crucial for India which relies heavily on fuel imports for its fast-growing economy…Analysts say that the pipeline could also contribute to security as Iran, Pakistan and India benefit more by mutual co-operation.

Ultimately, Ahmadinejad’s visit holds deeper ramifications for the United States, who feels the pipeline deal will weaken its efforts to isolate Tehran. The Christian Science Monitor noted in its piece today, “Washington opposes the pipeline because of what it brings to Iran, despite benefits also for U.S. allies India and Pakistan.” CNN reported Monday that Washington has put both New Delhi and Islamabad under pressure not to sign any agreement with Iran, despite the economic and security benefits of the oft-labeled “peace pipeline.” In fact, the United States recently tried to “scuttle” the pipeline by reportedly offering India advanced nuclear technology to make up for the loss of Iranian gas. Nevertheless, CNN cited Iran’s “semi-official” news agency, Fars, which reported that India “recently declared its readiness to participate in the discussions on the pipeline after more than a year.” If this development has taught us anything, it’s that international deals, despite their security and economic benefits, can hold much larger geostrategic ramifications and dangers, causing its progress to therefore come to a standstill. [Image from Christian Science Monitor]

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Media coverage of Pakistan on Friday was dominated by the government’s progress in negotiations with Taliban-linked militants in the FATA region. Reuters reported, “Pakistan is close to clinching a peace pact with one of the most recalcitrant tribes in its lawless border regions to rein in a Taliban leader [Beitullah Mehsud] regarded as a cohort of Al Qaeda.” A 15-point draft of the accord was reportedly shown to media outlets, including the NY Times, which noted it called for “an end to militant activity and an exchange of prisoners in return for the gradual withdrawal of the Pakistani military from part of the tribal region of South Waziristan.” The news agency added,

“Even as the accord, a far-reaching draft that essentially forbids the tribes from engaging in nearly all illegal actions, was being negotiated by the government through tribal elders, the militant leader, Beitullah Mehsud, ordered his fighters to cease their activities in the tribal regions as well as the adjoining North-West Frontier Province, warning of strict punishment of any violators.”

The Washington Post underlined the significance of the development, noting it marks “the sharpest break yet with the hard-line security policy followed by U.S.-backed President Pervez Musharraf.” Not surprisingly, both American and Afghan officials were immediately skeptical of a deal with Mehsud, who newswires yesterday framed as the “warlord accused of ordering Benazir Bhutto‘s assassination” in December 2007. The Post noted, “U.S. officials expressed concern that negotiations with perhaps the country’s most notorious Islamist commander would fail to bring a lasting solution to Pakistan’s political tumult.”

Despite this apprehension, Pakistani news sources on Friday cited statements by government and military officials hailing the progress of the talks. On Thursday, the Prime Minister’s Adviser on Interior Affairs Rehman Malik told reporters, “We will give the nation good news very soon regarding the peace initiative.” According to Dawn, Malik expressed the hope that Mehsud would not back out from the talks, asserting, “Tribal people are our brothers and the government will take all possible measures for their uplift and development of their areas.” The Daily Times cited chief military spokesman Maj. Gen. Athar Abbas, who stated, “Any cessation of hostilities is a welcome step…If they cease militant activities it is a good development.” However Abbas said the military had not been informed about the development, adding, “We have not received anything from them.”

Although the AFP recently reported there has been a “five week lull” in suicide attacks, media outlets today widely covered a car bombing in Mardan in northwestern Pakistan [see below map from the AP] that killed three people, despite Mehsud’s call for militants to refrain from attacks. According to the Associated Press, “A spokesman for Pakistani Taliban militants claimed responsibility for the blast but said it did not damage their commitment to peace negotiations opened by the government.” Although the government has high hopes for the outcome of these negotiations, I wonder how honest the intentions of Mehsud and his followers are – could they attempt to use the ceasefire as an opportunity to re-group and strengthen their organization? Moreover, how centralized is Mehsud’s authority if attacks still occur despite his calls otherwise? Finally, how successful do you believe these talks would be?

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CHUP recently had the opportunity to interview Mehreen Jabbar, a Pakistani filmmaker whose film, Ramachand Pakistani, was recently selected for the Tribeca Film Festival and will be screened for six days, from April 28, 2008 to May 3, 2008 [for information on theaters and purchasing tickets, click here.] The film, based on a true story, explores what transpires when a Pakistani Hindu boy and his father accidentally cross the border into India at a time of extreme tension between the two countries. They were subsequently held in an overcrowded Indian jail for five years. The Tribeca Film Festival website wrote, “In her first feature film, Mehreen Jabbar lays out the political contexts of Ramchand’s situation with exceptional fluidity.” For her thoughts on the film and the overarching Pakistani film industry, please read below [Image from her website]:

Q: Congratulations on your film, Ramachand Pakistani, being selected for the Tribeca Film Festival. What inspired and motivated you to tackle a film with such serious political undertones? Is there a message you were attempting to send with the movie?

A: The story was first given to me by my father, Javed Jabbar who had met the father and son on whom the film is based in the Tharparkar desert where he has worked on a volunteer basis for the last 2 decades. The story apart from having political, religious overtones was inherently the story of a family that is separated and the experience of that seperation on the young boy and his mother.

 
Q: The Pakistani film industry has long been overshadowed by movies produced by Bollywood. However, recently, several feature-length films on poignant topics have received tremendous media attention in Pakistan and internationally, such as Khuda Kay Liye and of course, Ramachand Pakistani. Do you think the more topical and serious issues discussed by these films will help set a standard for the future of the Pakistani film industry?

A: I think Pakistan needs all kinds of films. It needs a thorough revival of the film industry which means that all genres and themes should be welcome. What it would need is a constant release of films, not just one in a year or one in two years because that will not do much for the local industry. The one good sign is that cinemas are now doing good business again and people are starting to come out and watch films on the big screen again. That is a very important development and should be sustained.

 
Q; CHUP recently covered the wide commercial release of Khuda Kay Liye in India – a development that essentially ended the film ban between the two countries, and discussed the idea of film diplomacy, that is, the use of film, theater and art to broker and repair ties between contentious nations. Do you feel that film can act as a medium to help bridge differences and reconcile conflicts?

A: Of course it can.  Film or for that matter, any form of art or cultural exchange gives an insight about that particular society and the experience of art can be shared universally and bring people together. Ignorance always breeds suspicion and hatred.

 
Q: Much of your past work has touched on the plight of Pakistani women and their daily experiences. As a Pakistani female filmmaker, have you encountered many challenges in pursuing your career and achieving success? 

A: I have been very lucky in that I haven’t encountered any major problems being a woman filmmaker in Pakistan. I think the issues i’ve faced in the industry have been one that have been faced by all filmmakers. Those range from lack of technical infrastructure, the tendency of TV channels to promote only one kind of programming, various forms of censorship, both overt and covert, etc. I think with time and if this industry is allowed to flourish, it will hopefully become more sophisticated and dynamic.

Below is the trailer for the film, [it will be screened in Urdu, but with English subtitles]:

 

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There has been increasing concern growing over the global food crisis, which has affected numerous countries across the world, including Pakistan. This week’s Economist cover story [see attached image] noted, “For the first time in 30 years, food protests are erupting in many places at once.” Our contributor, Abida Mukhtar, a consultant based in Lahore, [and also the author of last week's post on the issues facing the Pakistani textile industry], discusses the global crisis as well as rising food prices in Pakistan:

Food prices have risen more than 40 percent globally since last summer. With international bodies, such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and World Bank warning that the trend is likely to continue, it is a matter of serious concern, especially for developing countries.

The recent increase in food prices is somewhat of a global phenomenon. Analysts depict that there is new demand in the world for food. With Asian nations growing faster and faster, so grows their demand for food. The diets of the BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China) nations have changed tremendously in the past years, which have resulted in producers struggling to meet their demand. The increase in domestic demand has put pressure on domestic and international prices. For example, the BRIC nations have an increasing demand for meat, which is directly correlated to increase in demand for animal feed (mostly corn and wheat), that has pushed up the prices of those food items. In addition, the increase in domestic demand of BRIC nations has not only put pressure on prices at home, but also curtailed the level of their food exports as producers are not equipped to meet their domestic demands so rapidly.

Rising input prices for farmers has also added to escalating foods prices. The past year has seen an increase in mainly all key production costs -energy, seed, fertilizers, and land. Farmers require usage of energy i.e. petrol for their tractors, which has escalated more than more than 100 percent in the past year, rising from $50 to $60/barrel in the early part of 2007, to $114 in April 2008. Crude oil prices also have direct impact on fertilizers, as it contains contain nitrogen that is used in fertilizers. Farmers are also using more fertilizers to increase their productivity of crops, so the rise in price of fertilizers.

The current innovation in energy production has produced a new type of demand-Bio Fuel. Prior to Bio Fuel, demand for agricultural product was determined by food and animal feed. It is estimated that by 2017, the United States will require production of 300 million tones of maize (corn) to satisfy the demand for Bio Fuel alone. Current production levels of the United States are 300 million tons, out of which half of it is exported to the world. This illustrates that the US farmers have to boost the production of corn; otherwise the growing demand will continue to hike up world prices.

Unpredictable weather has also played a role to escalate prices. Drought, floods, heat waves and unpredictable climate change has had a negative impact on food production. For instance, in Australia, because of unpredicted floods, wheat production was half of what it was forecasted to be. This resulted in Australia importing wheat and pushing up prices further.

Therefore, unlike the common belief in most developing countries, the hike in food prices is not a domestically created issue. Growing demands of BRIC nations, rising input costs, new demands (Bio-Fuel) and unpredictable weather has escalated food prices. As warned by International organizations, the past months have witness unrest across the world-one week violence in Egypt, riots in Haiti, and protests in Cameroon, Yemen, Bolivia, and Indonesia. Some nations have been hit more than the others. According to the World Bank spring report, Pakistan is one of the 32 nations that is predicted to have severe food crises and subsequent social unrest if domestic policies are not altered.

With a population of more than 160 million people, Pakistanis consume approximately 22 million tons of wheat annually. Although Pakistan has been self-sufficient in wheat production and is one of the major rice exporters, Pakistan witnessed wheat shortage for the first time last year.

Although global factors have added to wheat shortage and rising food prices, the reasons for wheat shortage are quite different in Pakistan. One of the main reasons is that electricity shortage has curtailed the production of ‘milling wheat into flour.’ Analysts reveal that Pakistan had a bumper crop in the year 2006/2007. However, because of the attractive world wheat prices, the government exported half-million tons of wheat, which resulted in domestic shortage. It has subsequently resulted in increasing wheat prices-from 15 rupees per kg in Jan 2007 to 24-25 rupees in Jan 2008.

The previous government also reduced wheat subsidies that had a negative impact on farmers. Farmers always produce commodities that have an attractive price, with the reduced subsidies; they switched to other cash crops such as sugar cane. The previous government blames the wheat shortage on illegal smuggling to Afghanistan, Central Asia and Russia. However, the black market is a weak excuse by the Pakistani government, since it has existed in the past and should be included in the factors when projecting wheat forecasts. The shortages resulted in near-riots in many cities of Pakistan, especially North-West Frontier Province (NWFP). January 15th 2008 saw the deployment of armed troops around the border to curtail the black market. Moreover, after the release of the World Bank spring report that predicted ‘agriculture shortages,’ the government deployed armed troops to supervise the distribution of wheat and flour.

The new coalition government raised the support price it pays farmers to buy wheat to ensure adequate supplies. However, due to the broader mismanagement of funds of the previous government, the widening fiscal deficit and rising food prices, the situation is tough for the new government.

Nevertheless, all is not lost. Pakistan is a rich land. Currently, the Punjab province produces around 16 million tons of wheat annually. With R&D, the agricultural produce can increase to cater the demand. Moreover, smarter policies and better irrigational systems can turn the semi-barren land of Sindh and NWFP into agriculture produce land. Although these are long-term plans, they will be beneficial in the future. Currently, the government can pursue other mediums to control the food crisis such as ‘support price of wheat crop at cultivation time’ or price ceilings, to curb inflation and to help the poor to maintain some standard of living.

 

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On Monday, the Pakistani Supreme Court struck down a requirement introduced by the government of President Pervez Musharraf that parliamentary candidates must hold a Bachelors degree. The News reported today, “A seven-member larger bench of the Supreme Court, headed by Chief Justice Abdul Hameed Dogar, while hearing the petition filed against the condition of graduation degree, abolished it by declaring it as against the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution.”

The NY Times reported on the development in light of the speculations surrounding PPP co-chairman, Asif Ali Zardari. The article noted, “The action clears the way for Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of Benazir Bhutto and leader of the major party in the new governing coalition, who has indicated that he might run for a seat in Parliament in May and, it is expected, look to assume the post of prime minister. While he claims to have a degree, there have been questions over whether he finished his studies.”

Recent developments have presumably been paving the way for Zardari’s road to the premiership. On April 10th, [see related post], a Sindh High Court judge cleared Zardari of charges of conspiracy and murder of his brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto’s murder case, the last case against him in the local courts. The development further cleared the way for the PPP co-Chairman to stand for the upcoming  bi-parliamentary elections, which could inevitably lead to his premiership. The ambiguity surrounding the future of this position was further compounded during current Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani‘s recent interview with Newsweek. When asked, “How long do you expect to remain in office in view of Zardari’s recent comment that he would become premier if the need arose,” Gilani responded,

“The PPP is a very democratic party with roots in all four provinces. We have decided to separate the party and the government offices. I’m PPP vice chairman, but I don’t attend party meetings. The party formulates the policies, and the government implements the policies. I’m here because of the party, and I’ll be here as long as the party wishes me to be.”

Prominent PPP member and current Information Minister Sherry Rahman sought to dismiss these speculations Sunday, when she told the Daily Times that Zardari only indicated he would become the Prime Minister “if need be,” adding, “Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani was elected unanimously. Zardari was talking about the future, not present.” Despite her efforts to counter these rumors, the future roles of both Zardari and PML-N head Nawaz Sharif continue to remain ambiguous, although Pakistaniat noted yesterday that the intentions of Sharif appear to be much more clear, as Nawaz, Shahbaz Sharif and Hamza Shahbaz “are all ready to file their nomination papers and have made quite clear that once elected they will run the show – at least in the Punjab – directly.”

The question is, of course, whether these ambitions and other disagreements will fracture the current ruling coalition government. Currently, the two parties were reportedly in a deadlock over the judicial issue, “as the PPP was reluctant to restore Iftikhar Chaudhry as Supreme Court Justice, and some reports suggested Sharif’s aides could resign from cabinet.” Reuters cited PPP party sources, who told the news agency, “Chaudhry’s defiance of Musharraf made him a cause celebre, but while the PPP leadership has stood up for the independence of the judiciary it has reservations about some individual judges, including Chaudhry.” The news agency added, “Analysts say the PPP is worried that some judges could take up challenges to a pardon Musharraf granted in October that wiped out corruption cases against Bhutto and Zardari, among others.” Despite these reports, both party leaders have sought to downplay any differences that remained over this issue. On Tuesday, Zardari and Sharif vowed to honor their commitment to reinstate the judges, asserting in a joint statement that any differences over the issue would not break their alliance. [Image retrieved from The News]

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