Major upset as opposition’s Gillani beats finance minister Shaikh for hotly contested senate seat

Pakistani Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani attends a ceremony at The Prime Minister House in Islamabad on February 11, 2012. (AFP)
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Updated 03 March 2021

Major upset as opposition’s Gillani beats finance minister Shaikh for hotly contested senate seat

  • Voting ended on Wednesday evening in election for 37 seats in the upper house of parliament
  • Government and opposition alliance battled to get their candidates elected to win a majority in National Assembly

ISLAMABAD: In a major blow to the government, the joint opposition candidate Yousuf Raza Gillani won the general seat from Islamabad, beating the government’s candidate, finance minister Abdul Hafeez Shaikh, in a hotly contested election for 37 seats in the upper house of parliament, local media reported. 

Election commission officials started counting the votes after 5pm – the official deadline to close the polls – in the National Assembly and all three provincial assemblies including Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Eleven senators from Punjab have already been declared unopposed winners. 

The ruling party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and an opposition alliance, waged a tough competition to get their candidates Shaikh and Gillani elected respectively, to win a majority in the National Assembly. Pakistani media channels reported on Wednesday evening that Gillani, who is a former prime minister of Pakistan and belongs to the Pakistan Peoples Party, had won against Shaikh, in what is being seen as a major upset for the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. 

The 342-member lower house of the parliament is the electoral college for the two Islamabad seats where it currently has 341 members, with one vacant seat.

“It’s a serious loss for the government of Imran Khan which has lost its majority in the house,” Mohammad Malick, senior political journalist and TV anchor, told Arab News. “Today the government has to worry about two things: a resurgent opposition and an ostensibly neutral establishment. Unless Khan regroups, makes big changes in Punjab and center, he might end up with a perpetually neutral establishment and an emboldened opposition — a combination which could prove fatal for his government.”

Voting started at 9am this morning for an election that has been marred by accusations of corrupt practices and a controversy over the method of voting. 

In Pakistan, a senator serves a term of six years, barring resignation, disqualification, or other extraordinary circumstances. Half of the senators are elected at one time, and the other half three years later. 

This year, 52 senators elected in 2015 are set to retire; the other 52 will retire in 2024. However, elections are being held only for 48 seats after Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) were merged with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province in 2018. The Senate thus now comprises 100 lawmakers: 23 each from all the provinces and four from Islamabad. The remaining four senators from FATA will retire in 2024. 

The Pakistani Supreme Court ruled this Monday that upcoming senate elections would continue to be held through a secret ballot as per the constitution but directed the election commission to use technology to check against corrupt practices in the polls. 

The court’s 4:1 verdict came in response to a presidential reference filed on December 23, 2020 seeking the court’s opinion on whether voting in senate elections could be held through an open ballot. 

The government of PM Khan has argued that open balloting would introduce transparency into a voting process that has long been plagued by irregularities, with national and provincial lawmakers accused of selling their votes. 

Leaders of an 11-party opposition alliance, the Pakistan Democratic Movement (PDM), have opposed the government’s move to try to hold senate elections through an open ballot, and one of the major parties in the alliance, the Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam, had filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the Election Amendment Ordinance 2021. 

On Tuesday, the election commission said senate elections this year would be held as ‘per past practices,’ saying it was setting up a monitoring mechanism to identify corrupt practices in the elections. 

On Tuesday night, a video surfaced showing the son of former prime minister Gillani, the joint opposition’s most prominent candidate for the polls, explaining to lawmakers how they can waste their vote during the election. 

The government has since demanded the election commission declare Gillani ineligible and has filed a reference with the commission seeking his disqualification for being involved in “corrupt practices.” 

 


Pakistan appoints fourth finance minister in two years in shake-up of economic team

Updated 35 min 52 sec ago

Pakistan appoints fourth finance minister in two years in shake-up of economic team

  • Shake-up of economic team comes as government enters key period of budget-making and implementing IMF reforms
  • Shaukat Tarin, a former banker, was named new finance minister, held the finance minister portfolio in a previous government

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan on Friday appointed a new finance minister, its fourth in two years, in shake-up of the government’s economic team, the prime minister’s office said, as the government enters a key period of budget-making and implementation of IMF reforms.

Shaukat Tarin, a former banker, was named as the new finance minister. He had held the finance minister portfolio in a previous government. His predecessor, Hammad Azhar, held the portfolio for less than three weeks.

Prime Minister Imran Khan also shuffled other key economy-related ministries, including the economic affairs and power portfolios.


In Pakistan’s southern desert region, climate-change driven poverty linked to suicide spikes

Updated 16 April 2021

In Pakistan’s southern desert region, climate-change driven poverty linked to suicide spikes

  • At least 143 people took their lives in Thar Desert’s Tharparkar and Umerkot districts between 2016-2020
  • Extreme weather patterns are a frequent threat and major cause of poverty, now increasingly driving people to suicide

MITHI, SINDH: Last year, two cousins who wanted to marry each other in a town hemmed in the rolling dunes of Pakistan’s Thar desert took their own lives by hanging themselves from a tree because they did not have the money to arrange their wedding. Just a few years earlier, the girl’s father had also killed himself due to financial troubles. 
Earlier this month, at a bus stop near the multi-billion dollar Thar Coal Power Project, Amru Kohli, the couple’s 60-year-old grandmother waited in the scorching heat for the next bus to arrive, hoping to collect some charity — her only source of income in a region where climate-change driven poverty is increasingly pushing people to suicide.
“With no livelihood available and family in debt of over Rs100,000, I have no option but to beg,” Kohli told Arab News.

Amru Kohli, 60, collects alms on a highway in the Islamkot area, Tharpakar district, Pakistan, on April 2, 2021. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)

Six people in her village had committed suicide in the last two years, she said: “The main reason was extreme poverty.”
The UNDP’s Multidimensional Poverty Index for Pakistan reports that 87% of the population in Thar lives in poverty. Climate change is now driving locals into more deprivation.
Between 2016 to 2020, the Sindh Mental Health Authority (SMHA), an arm of the provincial government, said 767 suicides were recorded in Sindh, out of which the highest number, 79 cases, occurred in Tharparkar district in the Thar desert and another 64 cases were recorded in the desert’s Umerkot district. With a total of 143 cases reported in Thar, one in every five suicides in Sindh occurs in the desert region, SMHA said.

A signboard marks Mataro Saand village next to a highway near Islamkot area in Tharpakar district, Pakistan, on April 2, 2021. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)

The non-governmental organization, the Association for Water, Applied Education and Renewable Energy (AWARE), put total deaths by suicide in Thar at 348 between 2016-2020.
“With every day passing, suicide cases are rising in the desert,” Ali Akbar Rahimoo, AWARE executive director, told Arab News. “In the first three months of 2021, suicide cases in Tharparkar district reported in mainstream media were 20 cases, out of which 13 were women.”
While the SMHA report cites mental illness, domestic issues, and poverty as the main reasons for suicides across the province, researchers link the spike in suicide rates in the Thar region to climate change-driven droughts.
“After the 1970s, the area has witnessed prolonged droughts and famine coming more frequently than in the past,” Rahimoo said. “Nowadays, even if there are rains, they are erratic and delayed, which reduces their effects on the area whose economic cycle and agriculture is solely dependent upon rainfalls. Each drought takes locals five years back.”
Dr. Lakesh Khatri, a Mirpurkhas-based psychiatrist who has worked in Thar, said mental health issues linked to droughts and their effect on household incomes were contributing to rising suicide rates in the desert.
“Thar’s economy is dependent on rainfall as there is no comprehensive river water supply in the desert or any other major livelihood source,” the psychiatrist said. “Prolonged droughts shrink available means of income. Hence lack of livelihood opportunities and inaccessibility to resources triggers inhabitants toward depression, ultimately [to] taking their own lives.”
Locals have also protested Chinese-funded projects like the Thar Coal Power Project, with its estimated 175 billion tons of coal, saying the project will pollute their water and threaten their ancestral lands. But construction has continued. 
“Locals don’t see any trickle-down effect coming to them from the mega projects built on natural sources they are the owners of,” Rahimoo said. 

A villager poses for a photograph in Mataro Saand, Tharpakar district, Pakistan, on April 2, 2021. (AN photo by Zulfiqar Kunbhar)

Marium Shabbir, a researcher at the Islamabad-based Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), said climate-change driven poverty was a new addition to the impoverished regions problems, with “extreme weather patterns” increasing people’s vulnerability. 
“It could be handled through pre-policy making,” Shabbir told Arab News. “If this is not addressed, it could turn into a political, social, and economic disaster of international scale.”


Major social media outlets blocked to ‘maintain public order’ — Pakistan telecoms authority

Updated 16 April 2021

Major social media outlets blocked to ‘maintain public order’ — Pakistan telecoms authority

  • “In order to maintain public order and safety, access to certain social media applications restricted temporarily,” PPTA spokesperson says
  • Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, YouTube, TikTok and Telegram blocked on orders of PTA, Internet service provider says

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan blocked multiple social media apps temporarily on security grounds on Friday as part of what is believed to be a crackdown against a religious political party that has held violent nationwide protests this week, a telecommunications authority official said, while a major Internet service provider in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad sent text messages to its users apologizing for the “inconvenience.” 
Pakistan Internet users had difficulty accessing apps including What, Facebook, You tube and Twitter from late on Friday morning, Reuters said. 
The Internet blockade comes as Pakistan said this week it would outlaw the religious political party Tehreek-i-Labaik Pakistan after the arrest of its leader on Monday sparked major nationwide protests. Rizvi and his supporters are calling on the government to expel the French ambassador over cartoons published in France depicting the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him).
“In order to maintain public order and safety, access to certain social media applications has been restricted temporarily,” Khurram Mehran, a spokesperson for the Pakistan Telecommunications Authority (PTA) told Arab News, without specifying which social media.
Internet, cable TV and phone service provider Nayatel, based in Islamabad, sent text messages to users saying:
“On directions by PTA, below mentioned social media platforms have been blocked. Twitter. Facebook. WhatsApp. YouTube. TikTok. Telegram. Inconvenience is regretted.”
Usama Khilji, a director at digital advocacy group Bolo Bhi, said it was “against the constitution to suspend people’s access to information by blocking social media just because of a group and in the name of law and order.”
“Also, this isn’t a wise security strategy to suspend Internet because this won’t send protesters home, instead it will project a bad image of our country abroad,” he told Arab News. 
Nighat Dad at the Digital Rights Foundation said: 
“What kind of national emergency we are dealing with that government banned entire social media temporarily? These arbitrary decisions of blocking and banning have never done any good instead opened ways to blanket bans.”


Chief of Tehreek-e-Labaik asks supporters to call off protests as Pakistan moves to ban party

Updated 16 April 2021

Chief of Tehreek-e-Labaik asks supporters to call off protests as Pakistan moves to ban party

  • Saad Rizvi tells supporters not to indulge in illegal activity, immediately clear roadblocks, return peacefully to homes and cooperate with authorities
  • Rizvi’s appeal comes a day after cabinet approved proposal by interior ministry to ban TLP and file a case with Supreme Court to dissolve the party

KARACHI: Saad Rizvi, the head of the Tehreek-e-Labaik Pakistan religious political party, has called on his supporters to “immediately” halt protests being held across the country against Rizvi’z arrest, the party chief said in a handwritten letter shared on Twitter on Thursday by a top government aide. 
TLP supporters have been holding violent nationwide protests since Monday when Rizvi was arrested for threatening to launch a major protest campaign against the government if it did not expel France’s envoy to Islamabad over blasphemous caricatures of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) printed in a French publication last year. 
“I am addressing all shura [TLP council] members and Tehreek-e-Labaik workers and appeal that no illegal activity should be done for the sake of people and in the better interest of the country,” Rizvi said in his note, which was tweeted by Dr. Shahbaz Gill, special adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan on political communication.
“All protest demonstrations and roadblocks should be immediately cleared. All workers should return to their homes peacefully. Fully cooperate with the law enforcement agencies.”

Neither Rizvi himself, nor any of his party leaders, could be reached for comment on the note. Rizvi’s appeal comes a day after Pakistan’s federal cabinet approved a proposal by the interior ministry to ban TLP and file a case with the Supreme Court to dissolve the religious party, which is a registered political party with the Election Commission of Pakistan. The interior ministry says it is moving to have the party banned for killing two policemen, attacking law enforcement forces and disrupting public life during this week’s protests. 
“We have proscribed [the TLP] and the notification for that will be issued shortly,” federal interior minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed told reporters on Thursday. “Tomorrow, we will send another summary to the cabinet to file a reference in the Supreme Court since we are moving toward [TLP’s] dissolution.” 
The TLP gained prominence in Pakistan’s 2018 federal elections, campaigning to defend the country’s blasphemy law, which calls for the death penalty for anyone who insults Islam. The party also has a history of staging protests and sit-ins to pressure the government to accept its demands. 
In November 2017, Rizvi’s followers staged a 21-day protest and sit-in after a reference to the sanctity of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was removed from the text of a government form. 
In the 2018 elections, the party managed to win two seats in the Sindh Assembly from Karachi and got a female member elected on a reserved seat of the assembly. 
Religious parties — some new, others long-established — fielded more than 1,500 candidates for national and provincial assemblies in Pakistan’s general election on July 25, 2018.


India ‘more likely’ under PM Modi to use military force against Pakistan — US report 

Updated 16 April 2021

India ‘more likely’ under PM Modi to use military force against Pakistan — US report 

  • Annual threat assessment report for 2021 prepared by US Director of National Intelligence and sent to Congress
  • Says Modi more likely than in the past to respond with military force to ‘perceived or real’ Pakistani provocations

ISLAMABAD: Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India was more likely “to respond with military force” to provocations from Pakistan, heightening the risk of conflict between the nuclear-armed neighbors, a US intelligence report sent to Congress this week said.
Ties between India and Pakistan have been frozen since the suicide bombing of an Indian military convoy in Kashmir in 2019 that India said was carried out by Pakistan-based militants (Islamabad denies state complicity) and because of which New Delhi sent warplanes into Pakistan. Islamabad shot down an Indian fighter jet and captured its pilot in a subsequent aerial dogfight.
In August of the same year, India’s prime minister withdrew Indian-ruled Kashmir’s autonomy in order to tighten his grip over the territory, provoking outrage in Pakistan and the downgrading of diplomatic ties and suspension of bilateral trade. Both India and Pakistan rule Kashmir in part but claim the Himalayan valley in full.
“Although a general war between India and Pakistan is unlikely, crises between the two are likely to become more intense, risking an escalatory cycle,” said the annual threat assessment report for 2021 prepared by the office of the US Director of National Intelligence (DNI) and sent to Congress.
“Under the leadership of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, India is more likely than in the past to respond with military force to perceived or real Pakistani provocations, and heightened tensions raise the risk of conflict between the two nuclear-armed neighbors, with violent unrest in Kashmir or a militant attack in India being potential flashpoints.”
“The tensions between nuclear-armed India and Pakistan remain a concern for the world,” the report said, referring to regional conflicts that continue to fuel humanitarian crises, undermine stability, and threaten US persons and interests.
India and Pakistan have fought three wars and had tense ties since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
But in a rare sign of rapprochement, they held the first meeting in three years of a commission on water rights from the Indus River in March.
In February, the two nations announced a rare agreement to stop firing on the bitterly-contested border in Kashmir.
This week, the United Arab Emirates envoy to Washington said the UAE had played a role in getting longtime rivals India and Pakistan to agree to a cease-fire amid tensions over disputed Kashmir.
Speaking in a video released Wednesday by Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, Yousef Al-Otaiba acknowledged an Emirati role “in bringing the Kashmir escalation down.”
“We try to be helpful where we have influence with two different countries,” Al-Otaiba told H.R. McMaster, a former national security adviser to Trump. “India and Pakistan was the most recent one.”