WHAT IS THE PULSE OF THE BUSINESS COMMUNITY ON LFO? WHAT IS THEIR GUT FEELING WHERE PAKISTAN IS HEADED FOR?
The LFO issue should have been among the main items in the agenda of the businessmen and the trade associations. However, except for a statement here and there, there has been no concrete airing of the business community's views on this contentious subject.
Last month, SITE Association of Industry did issue a press release in which it urged the two parties to resolve it on an immediate basis. It had stated that Pakistan was among the top three countries in economic development and the LFO deadlock was becoming a serious deterrent. The continuing limbo would seriously affect business commitments, industrial investments, and confidence in the economy. Alas, the committee was not able to break the deadlock and there is utter confusion in the country.
Recent events seem ominous to the business community. The arrest of Opposition members of the Punjab Assembly and their subsequent ouster from Assembly sessions on Speaker's orders, the demolition of Bait-ul-Hamza that is the citadel of MQM (Haqiqi), the filing of a case pleading for the disqualification of 65 members since their religious degrees were not in conformity with the requirements under election rules, the passage of the Shariat Bill in the NWFP Assembly, the strong-arm tactics of certain elements supported by MMA who ripped off or defaced billboards depicting women, the activities of the "mind squad" who want to purge the nation of certain English words and works, and the vociferous demands emanating from all Opposition meetings and speeches that the President must stay as the President or as the Chief of Army Staff have all created doubts and uncertainty.
The immediate concern is the upcoming Federal Budget that is to be presented on June 07, 2003 by the Finance Minister, Senator Shaukat Aziz, in the National Assembly. Nevertheless, the news now reaching the business community is that it may be delayed by 10-12 days or it may be announced on the electronic media. There is a feeling rampant among the businessmen that the Opposition might be blocked from entering Parliament on that fateful day and this could be a repeat of the recent events in Lahore. Another view is that the court may rule that the 65 legislators stand disqualified. Conversely, the court may rule them qualified and the government may petition for a status quo against the court order. This would, automatically keep the 65 out and the budget session could proceed with a minimum number of Opposition members in attendance. The budget could be approved by 2/3 majority since the Opposition ranks would be depleted.
A large number of businessmen are apprehensive that the Assemblies may be either suspended or dissolved and the pre-election scenario might be re-enacted again, this time more forcefully. The conventional wisdom is that this would be beneficial to MMA because it has pulpit power since all mosques and imambargahs would be activated as focal points of rabble-rousing. This would be further compounded by the vitriolic statements by MMA that the government wrongly supported the coalition forces in Iraq because no WMD were found by the conquerors. The MMA leadership would project their contention that they were right and the government was weak-kneed and playing second fiddle to the Americans.
They further fear that this could lead to a breakdown in law and order, curfews, mass arrests, and closure of businesses and industries. They also feel that PML (Q) is not sincere and Jamali lacks the power to lead. They also feel that the government is playing into the hands of Sharif and Bhutto, and that Shahbaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari would soon be projected as national heroes if the consequences for the Presidency got rough.
At the same time, some aver that "third forces" have become active once again and they are ensuring that things go out of the hands of the Government as well as the Opposition. They give a lot of credence to the recent events enumerated above. All these activities happening in tandem fuel further suspicion that something hot is cooking.
There is also some talk that a meeting of National Security Council might be held very soon and the decisions of NSC might be formidable. There is this view floating around that right now there is a "lull before the storm" and things would move fast if "off-the-record" parleys between the government, the opposition, and sensitive forces, do not come up with a workable solution. Some are of the opinion that Maulana Fazlur Rehman is the most vulnerable and may succumb to "hard talk" and that this may result in a split in MMA.
The general view is that the President would not succumb to the demands that he shed his uniform nor would he accept the notion that the NSC should not function in the manner enshrined in the LFO. The business community is also perturbed that the LFO gives more powers and force to NAB and that this could be detrimental to the interests of the business community in more ways than one.
The FPCCI President has been advised by an industrialist to issue a policy statement on behalf of the business community and to hold a Press Conference as early as possible on the need to resolve the present imbroglio.
The rising feeling among the business community is that the present political set-up is fragile, weak, and confusing. The same tired old horses are either in the assemblies or they are holding the reins of the younger brood. Nothing much has changed except that the faces of many are fresh and there are more women and more clergy. They are of the opinion that the pre-election scenario was more favorable for Pakistan and that the world powers must be told that it would take more than a few years to bring any kind of a democratic order in the country. The rise in the popularity graph of MMA, inspite of its recent activities, has to be emphasized to the Western governments who clamor for a full dose of democracy here. At the same time, the country's economy is moving in a progressive mode and thus it needs a smoother highway and not roadblocks. Otherwise, poverty would increase, and frustration of the people would be very difficult to control.
The consensus is that confusion would continue to prevail for some time, no matter what!
May 31, 2003