FeaturedNationalVolume 14 Issue # 10

Shahbaz Sharif’s hopes of survival still alive?

Leader of the Opposition in the National Assembly and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) President Shahbaz Sharif has been elected chairman of the Public Accounts Committee after months of tension between the government and the opposition. His appointment to a key parliamentary post is being seen as a first step for relief for him and few other members of the Sharif family, who are facing corruption cases.

The government is still perturbed over his appointment, as if it was forced to accept his nomination. Prime Minister Imran Khan once again warned the leaders of opposition parties that his government would not back down from holding them accountable for their alleged corrupt practices during their respective tenures. His words created an impression as if he was forced to back down from his promise of not accepting Shahbaz as PAC head. According to Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry, the opposition parties had “blackmailed” the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government into giving the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairmanship to PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif. Addressing a press conference, he alleged the opposition had used undemocratic tactics for the appointment of Shahbaz Sharif, who is facing many corruption cases. It will also be interesting to see Shahbaz coming from jail or NAB custody to head the parliamentary committee.

The deadlock on the appointment of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) chairman ended when the government accepted the opposition parties’ demand, paving the way for the formation of standing committees, which are necessary to run the business of the National Assembly. The PAC is the apex parliamentary watchdog that oversees the audit of revenue and expenditure by the government and it is considered to be the most powerful and important committee of the parliament. Previously, the PAC comprised only National Assembly members, but members of the Senate have also been made part of it recently.

The PTI government was reluctant to give the chairmanship of the vital parliamentary committee to the opposition leader, because it said PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif could not hold fair accountability of projects of the government of former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Under the agreement, a special committee, headed by a PTI lawmaker, will review the audit objections of the PML-N tenure. The government had asked the opposition to name anybody, other than Shahbaz Sharif, but the opposition refused, arguing that according to parliamentary traditions, only the leader of the opposition was eligible to become chairman of the committee.

The development has come at a time when Shabbaz Sharif is facing corruption charges in the Ashiana-i-Iqbal Housing Scheme case and he is currently under judicial remand. His designated residence in Islamabad was declared a sub-jail after the National Assembly speaker issued his production orders, so that the PML-N president could attend the parliamentary session. The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) has also filed a supplementary reference against Shahbaz Sharif, former Principal Secretary to ex-Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, Fawad Hasan Fawad, former Lahore Development Authority (LDA) Director General Ahad Cheema and others in the Ashiyana-i-Iqbal scam. Filed in an accountability court in Lahore, the supplementary reference alleges that Shahbaz Sharif had usurped “the powers of the Board of Directors of the Punjab Land Development Company (PLDC) and transferred the project of Aashiana-i-Iqbal from PLDC to LDA.” The reference says Shahbaz Sharif, in connivance with Cheema, had awarded the contract to an illegible proxy, which resulted in the failure of the project and loss to the state exchequer and deprived 61,000 poor applicants of houses.

The reference accuses Sharif Sharif of causing a loss of Rs660 million to the state exchequer and also an escalation of the project cost by approximately Rs3.39 billion. He is accused of cancelling the award of the project to successful bidder M/s Chaudhry Latif and Sons and instead obliging M/s Lahore Casa Developers (JV) — a proxy group of M/s Paragon City (Pvt) Limited, which was developed by former Railways Minister Khawaja Saad Rafique, who along with his brother Salman Rafique, is already in NAB’s custody in the Paragon Housing Society scandal.

According to NAB, Saad Rafique, in connivance with his wife Ghazala Saad Rafique, brother Salman Rafique, Qaiser Amin Butt and Nadeem Zia, started the Air Avenue housing project. Later, Air Avenue was changed into M/s Paragon City (Pvt) Limited. The record shows that it was an illegal housing society, which deprived people of billions of rupees. Saad got allocated 40 kanals of plots against his and his brother’s name in the society. By misusing their position, they extended the project illegally and benefited by selling many commercial plots, amounting to billions of rupees. Former director of the Paragon City project, Qaiser Amin Butt, has already become an approver against Saad Rafique in the case.

As new developments in the housing schemes have added to problems of Shahbaz Sharif, Railways Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed has claimed Shahbaz Sharif’s wife Tehmina Durrani was playing an active role for the National Reconciliation Ordinance (NRO)-like relief for her husband and predicted that all corrupt elements including politicians would be behind bars by March 2019. He also claimed that former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was still looking for relief for his daughter Maryam Nawaz.

Some analysts say Prime Minister Imran Khan talked repeatedly about the NRO in the context of pressure on him to appoint Shahbaz Sharif as PAC chairman. It was a warning to the establishment, when he had hinted at fresh elections in the country, they say. Shahbaz Sharif is considered very close to the establishment. After becoming the PAC head, he can summon heads of almost all institutions and issue production orders for legislators. It is said his empowerment is not without a reason.