PM tasks top aides to re-engage opposition over Panamagate scandal

Govt team to approach ‘doves’ in opposition initially

Prime minister has returned after spending more than a month and a half recuperating from open heart surgery in Britain. PHOTO: PML-N

ISLAMABAD: The government may unofficially engage opposition parties amenable to talks as the prime minister has tasked his top aide to bring hostile political rivals to the negotiating table, The Express Tribune has learnt from senior officials on Sunday. The disclosure came amid cascading pressure on the government for an independent inquiry into the Panamagate scandal.

Nawaz Sharif – who returned home on Saturday after spending more than a month and a half in London – assigned Finance Minister Ishaq Dar to bring the opposition parties to the negotiating table, according to a senior minister of his cabinet. Some sources added that Leader of the House in the Senate Raja Zafarul Haq, Information Minister Pervaiz Rashid and PML-N’s chief whip in the National Assembly Shaikh Aftab would assist Dar.

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The main talking point will be terms of reference (ToRs) for a proposed commission which is supposed to investigate claims in the Panama Papers that hundreds of Pakistani politicians – including the Sharif family – have offshore holding. The two sides would pick up from where they had left in mid-June when the talks fell apart.

Subsequently, the two main opposition parties – the PPP and the PTI – walked out of the Parliamentary Committee on Panama Papers and threatened street agitation against the government blaming the ruling PML-N of trying to save the Sharif family.

After receiving the prime minister’s nod, Dar contacted Khursheed Shah, senior leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party, and Shah Mehmood Qureshi, vice chairman of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, requesting them to have one last meeting of the parliamentary panel. In the premier’s absence, eight sessions of the committee could not yield consensus ToRs.

“Ishaq Dar has received an encouraging response. And we [PML-N] hope the ninth sitting of the parliamentary committee will be held sometime this week,” the cabinet member told The Express Tribune. “Dar and Khursheed Shah are also scheduled to meet today (Monday),” he added. “Though they will mainly pore over possible picks for the Election Commission of Pakistan, but the ToR issue will also figure in the meeting.”

Initially, the government team would try to approach doves in the opposition ranks because, according to the sources, they believe “these doves can give them an early breakthrough”.

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PML-N Senator Chaudhry Tanvir Khan said the government would go to any length to settle the matter through negotiations. “The prime minister has already offered himself and his family up for investigation,” he said. However, he insisted singling out the Sharif family for accountability was an unfair demand, which would not be accepted.

Senator Tanvir was among those senior PML-N leaders with whom the premier conferred after landing at the Lahore airport on Saturday. He confirmed the government would reengage the opposition because dialogue is the only viable option to settle the pending issues. “Any opposition’s demand for a minus-Nawaz arrangement will not be acceptable.”

Raja Zafarul Haq endorsed Senator Tanvir. “Democracy is all about resolving differences amicably through consultation, not confrontation. It is the policy of the PML-N to take the opposition along on national issues,” he told The Express Tribune.

It is yet unclear whether or not the government and the opposition would reach a common ground on the issue that they have failed to resolve. Government sources, however, said the main objective of reengaging with the opposition was to break the ice and alleviate hostility between the two sides without “caring much about the outcome.”

Smaller political parties supporting govt

Some smaller groups in the nine-party joint opposition differ with a demand that accountability should begin from the Sharif family. And they are expected to throw their weight behind the government – apparently to secure their own political interests. These groups include the ANP, MQM and Qaumi Waten Party.

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“We [ANP and MQM] have already expressed our reservations over the demand for including the prime minister’s name in the ToRs,” an ANP senator said. “We are opposed to such politicisation of the [Panamagate] issue by the opposition parties, especially by the PTI,” he said requesting not to be named. “The government demand is valid because a law cannot be person-specific.”

The senator warned that if the PTI and the PPP went ahead with their ‘solo flight’ over the issue, other opposition parties would be left with no other option but to reveal the truth before the public.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 11th, 2016.

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