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Is asset declaration meant to discredit the political system?

Get set poll…

regular television viewer would confirm the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam Chief, Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman commutes in expensive vehicles. He is often seen on television dismounting from black or white sports utility vehicles for meetings with top political leaders. Besides, when he was the target of a suicide bombing in Quetta in October 2014, his SUV attained national fame.

And yet when he filed nomination papers for contesting parliamentary elections, he mentioned in his asset declaration that he did not own a vehicle.

This was startling to many observers, “Maulana Fazal-ur-Rehman says he has no vehicles. So who owns those SUVs in which Maulana travels?” asks Dr Salman Shah, former federal finance minister.

According to asset declarations of Asif Ali Zardari, former President of Pakistan, he owns only one property outside Pakistan which is situated in Dubai, purchased for an amount equivalent to around Rs100 million.

This is contrary to the claims of his political opponents and media reports that say he owns palaces in France and Dubai and properties in other countries too, including the UK. Does he really not own any more properties outside Pakistan?

After the Panama revelations about one of the leading political families of the country, nobody is ready to believe the asset declaration of other political families, “We have been hearing from media reports that there are Swiss accounts and French palaces, we don’t see them in the asset declaration,” says Salman Shah.

Shah says most of the assets declared in the affidavits are grossly undervalued and the real worth of our political elites is far greater than what the wealth declarations show. For example, Bilawal Bhutto showed the cost of Bilawal House, Clifton Karachi as only Rs3 million. Similarly, he declared his shares were worth only Rs900,000 in Park Lane Estates, which has billions of rupees worth of land in Sanjiani Islamabad, spread over 2460 kanals. On the other hand, Maryam Nawaz Sharif is the owner of 1,506 kanals of irrigation land, worth billions of rupees.

A senior income tax lawyer, Aoustash Baig told TNS that the law requires that a candidate filing assets or filing an income tax return should mention the value of land at the time of purchase. In this situation Bilawal Bhutto’s mention of Rupees 3 million as the value of his property in Karachi can be seen as justified, as the land on which Bilawal House is situated was bought decades ago. However, Baig pointed out that if construction has taken place on the piece of land then its valuation must include that cost as well.

The ECP posted asset declarations of candidates on its website before the 2013 polls, but the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms asked the ECP to remove the parliamentarians’ details from the commission’s website for security reasons.

At this stage the Election Commission of Pakistan or any other legal authority is not scrutinising the declaration of assets. Asset evaluation by NAB is meant to be an ongoing process.

There is only one exception to this rule of not taking legal action against misrepresentation of facts or other cognizable offenses detected in the declaration of assets. The NAB Chairman has directed NAB Karachi to verify a complaint against PPP leader Sharjeel Memon for possessing assets beyond known sources of income.

So far, this is the only instance of NAB taking immediate action on the basis of asset declaration of a politician for nomination papers to contest the elections from PS-63.

According to his asset details, Sharjeel Memon owns an apartment worth Rs50 million in Dubai and his wife owns an apartment worth Rs98.9 million in Dubai.

Memon also possesses three cars worth Rs39.57 million as per the documents. The former Sindh information minister has also submitted that he owns Rs87.9 million in prize bonds and cash. Memon’s wife, according to the statement of assets, has an amount of Rs22.979 million in bank accounts.

According to former NAB prosecutor and senior supreme court lawyer, Raja Amir Abbas, this type of scrutiny can be applied against most political leaders whose declaration of assets contain information of assets beyond known sources of income, “This NAB law could be applied in other cases as well”, he says.

Bilawal Bhutto has taken the plea that all his assets are either gifted to him or he has inherited them from his family. “The point that someone has inherited assets from their ancestors or they have been gifted these assets can be a plausible plea against the application of NAB laws. However, NAB can ask the person who has gifted the land/assets to explain from where he has got this land/assets from,” says Abbas.

The long list of Maryam Nawaz Sharif’s assets and properties can also attract NAB authorities’ attention. “NAB has a history of using this law in a politically motivated manner,” says Abbas.

Two major political parties see this issue of leading politicians’ assets and properties as a scheme to discredit the political system and politicians. Both the PPP and PML-N say that there is a mastermind scheming to discredit politicians through coverage of asset declaration in the media. “Maybe they are doing this because democracy is getting strengthened in the country. This is going to be the third consecutive election and they want to discredit politicians to damage democracy,” says Nazir Dhoki, in-charge PPP media cell in Islamabad.

Former Interior Minister, Ahsan Iqbal, has similar views over the coverage of asset declaration procedures in the media, “This is meant to discredit the political system and politicians. If this affidavit is such a useful way of ensuring transparency in the country then make it mandatory for everyone, including every government officer above the rank of grade 21,” says Iqbal.

The ECP posted asset declarations of candidates on its website before the 2013 general elections, but the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms asked the ECP to remove the parliamentarians’ details from the commission’s website for security reasons, and to protect privacy.

Even this time, the ECP was reluctant to put details of candidates’ assets on its website. However, after coming under pressure from the media and concerned government departments, it reluctantly agreed to post them.

To some, the affidavit by the SC seems to be like a confessional statement of the candidates, “There is a long list of candidates who would face NAB laws in future when scrutiny starts on this,” says Raja Amir Abbas.

In 2013 the ECP agreed with the argument of leading political figures that public availability of this information could be used by terrorists and criminal elements to target politicians and later removed this information from its website. Just after the Panama issue, the ECP removed from its website a huge data of nomination papers and details of assets of thousands of politicians.

Read also: Opposition within the parties

This time, however, the ECP was pressurised by the NAB and other government departments to make all the information public for scrutiny. Maybe the political set up that comes into existence after the July 2018 elections will have a Sword of Damocles hanging on its head.

Umer Farooq

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Umer Farooq is a senior journalist based in Islamabad. He specializes in writing on politics, foreign policy and security issues.

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