Shehbaz Sharif elected Pakistan PM for 2nd term after controversial vote and his party’s defeat

News Network
March 3, 2024

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Pakistani legislators have elected Pakistan Muslim League (PMLN) leader Shehbaz Sharif as the country’s prime minister for a second term following a controversial election last month.

The South Asian country voted on February 8 in a vote marred by allegations of large-scale rigging and delayed results. On Sunday, the National Assembly, as the lower house of parliament is called, met to elect the premier.

“Shehbaz Sharif is declared to have been elected the prime minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan,” National Assembly Speaker Ayaz Sadiq said.

Shehbaz secured 201 votes in the 336-member National Assembly, comfortably prevailing over rival Omar Ayub Khan, who won 92. The winner needed at least 169 votes.

Khan was backed by the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC), the political group legislators belonging to former Prime Minister Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party joined after the PTI was barred from contesting for allegedly violating election laws.

Sharif, 72, served as prime minister until August last year when the National Assembly was dissolved to make way for a caretaker government, tasked with holding the national elections.

Shehbaz is the younger brother of three-time Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who founded the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) party, which is in alliance with the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) to form the government. Shehbaz is also the current PMLN president.

The National Assembly session on Sunday had a delayed start after the legislators belonging to the PTI-backed SIC raised slogans alleging Shehbaz came to power through electoral rigging.

The PTI, which was forced to field its candidates as independents after losing its election symbol, had emerged as the largest group with 93 seats. The party alleges its mandate was “stolen” and has kicked off street protests against the alleged rigging.

PTI leader Khan, who was removed through a parliamentary vote of no confidence in 2022, has been in jail since August last year following multiple convictions, including for revealing state secrets, corruption, and an “unlawful” wedding.

Pakistan, a country of 241 million people, is faced with political instability as it battles a declining economy and a rapidly deteriorating security situation.

While Khan’s supporters won 93 seats in the recent polls, PMLN won only 75 seats despite alleged rigging. Pakistan People's Party (PPP) secured 54 seats. 42 seats were won by others. To keep Khan away from power, PMLN, PPM and others forged an alliance after the poll. 

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News Network
April 11,2024

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Real estate tycoon Truong My Lan was sentenced Thursday to death by a court in Ho Chi Minh city in southern Vietnam in the country's largest financial fraud case ever, state media Thanh Nien said.

It's a rare verdict - she is one of very few women in Vietnam to be sentenced to death for a white collar crime, i.e. looting one of the country's largest banks over a period of 11 years.

The decision is a reflection of the dizzying scale of the fraud. Truong My Lan was convicted of taking out $44bn (£35bn) in loans from the Saigon Commercial Bank. The verdict requires her to return $27bn, a sum prosecutors said may never be recovered. Some believe the death penalty is the court's way of trying to encourage her to return some of the missing billions.

The habitually secretive communist authorities were uncharacteristically forthright about this case, going into minute detail for the media. They said 2,700 people were summoned to testify, while 10 state prosecutors and around 200 lawyers were involved.

The evidence was in 104 boxes weighing a total of six tonnes. Eighty-five defendants were tried with Truong My Lan, who denied the charges.

"There has never been a show trial like this, I think, in the communist era," says David Brown, a retired US state department official with long experience in Vietnam. "There has certainly been nothing on this scale."

The trial was the most dramatic chapter so far in the "Blazing Furnaces" anti-corruption campaign led by the Communist Party Secretary-General, Nguyen Phu Trong.

A conservative ideologue steeped in Marxist theory, Nguyen Phu Trong believes that popular anger over untamed corruption poses an existential threat to the Communist Party's monopoly on power. He began the campaign in earnest in 2016 after out-manoeuvring the then pro-business prime minister to retain the top job in the party.

 The campaign has seen two presidents and two deputy prime ministers forced to resign, and hundreds of officials disciplined or jailed. Now one of the country's richest women has joined their ranks.

Truong My Lan comes from a Sino-Vietnamese family in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon. It has long been the commercial engine of the Vietnamese economy, dating well back to its days as the anti-communist capital of South Vietnam, with a large, ethnic Chinese community.

She started as a market stall vendor, selling cosmetics with her mother, but began buying land and property after the Communist Party ushered in a period of economic reform, known as Doi Moi, in 1986. By the 1990s, she owned a large portfolio of hotels and restaurants.

Although Vietnam is best known outside the country for its fast-growing manufacturing sector, as an alternative supply chain to China, most wealthy Vietnamese made their money developing and speculating in property.

All land is officially state-owned. Getting access to it often relies on personal relationships with state officials. Corruption escalated as the economy grew, and became endemic.

By 2011, Truong My Lan was a well-known business figure in Ho Chi Minh City, and she was allowed to arrange the merger of three smaller, cash-strapped banks into a larger entity: Saigon Commercial Bank.

Vietnamese law prohibits any individual from holding more than 5% of the shares in any bank. But prosecutors say that through hundreds of shell companies and people acting as her proxies, Truong My Lan actually owned more than 90% of Saigon Commercial.

They accused her of using that power to appoint her own people as managers, and then ordering them to approve hundreds of loans to the network of shell companies she controlled.

The amounts taken out are staggering. Her loans made up 93% of all the bank's lending.

According to prosecutors, over a period of three years from February 2019, she ordered her driver to withdraw 108 trillion Vietnamese dong, more than $4bn (£2.3bn) in cash from the bank, and store it in her basement.

That much cash, even if all of it was in Vietnam's largest denomination banknotes, would weigh two tonnes.

She was also accused of bribing generously to ensure her loans were never scrutinised. One of those who was tried used to be a chief inspector at the central bank, who was accused of accepting a $5m bribe.

The mass of officially sanctioned publicity about the case channelled public anger over corruption against Truong My Lan, whose fatigued, unmade-up appearance in court was in stark contrast to the glamorous publicity photos people had seen of her in the past.

But questions are also being asked about why she was able to keep on with the alleged fraud for so long.

"I am puzzled," says Le Hong Hiep who runs the Vietnam Studies Programme at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute in Singapore.

"Because it wasn't a secret. It was well known in the market that Truong My Lan and her Van Thinh Phat group were using SCB as their own piggy bank to fund the mass acquisition of real estate in the most prime locations.

"It was obvious that she had to get the money from somewhere. But then it is such a common practice. SCB is not the only bank that is used like this. So perhaps the government lost sight because there are so many similar cases in the market."

David Brown believes she was protected by powerful figures who have dominated business and politics in Ho Chi Minh City for decades. And he sees a bigger factor in play in the way this trial is being run: a bid to reassert the authority of the Communist Party over the free-wheeling business culture of the south.

"What Nguyen Phu Trong and his allies in the party are trying to do is to regain control of Saigon, or at least stop it from slipping away.

"Up until 2016 the party in Hanoi pretty much let this Sino-Vietnamese mafia run the place. They would make all the right noises that local communist leaders are supposed to make, but at the same time they were milking the city for a substantial cut of the money that was being made down there."

At 79 years old, party chief Nguyen Phu Trong is in shaky health, and will almost certainly have to retire at the next Communist Party Congress in 2026, when new leaders will be chosen.

He has been one of the longest-serving and most consequential secretary-generals, restoring the authority of the party's conservative wing to a level not seen since the reforms of the 1980s. He clearly does not want to risk permitting enough openness to undermine the party's hold on political power.

But he is trapped in a contradiction. Under his leadership the party has set an ambitious goal of reaching rich country status by 2045, with a technology and knowledge-based economy. This is what is driving the ever-closer partnership with the United States.

Yet faster growth in Vietnam almost inevitably means more corruption. Fight corruption too much, and you risk extinguishing a lot of economic activity. Already there are complaints that bureaucracy has slowed down, as officials shy away from decisions which might implicate them in a corruption case.

"That's the paradox," says Le Hong Hiep. "Their growth model has been reliant on corrupt practices for so long. Corruption has been the grease that that kept the machinery working. If they stop the grease, things may not work any more."

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News Network
April 9,2024

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Mangaluru/ Bengaluru, Apr 2: Karnataka’s coastal belt some of the neighbouring areas will celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr on April 10, while rest of the state will witness the festival on April 11 due confusion over moon sighting. 

Muslim religious heads in twin coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi on the night of April 9 declared the end of Ramadan and beginning of Shawwal following reports of sighting of crescent moon. 

With this Eid will be celebrated on April 10 in the above region. Similarly, Muslims in Bhatkal and neighbouring state of Kerala too will celebrate the festival on April 10. 

However, Muslims in other parts of Karnataka will continue to fast on April 10 and celebrate the Eid on the following day due to non-sighting of moon in their region. 

The Karnataka Moon Sighting Committee chairman Moulana Maqsood Imran formally announced that the Eid-ul-Fitr in Bengaluru and areas of Karnataka will be celebrated on Thursday April 11. 

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News Network
April 14,2024

New Delhi, Apr 14: In response to the escalating tensions between Israel and Iran, ministry of external affairs (MEA) on Sunday issued a statement expressing serious concern over the potential threat to regional peace and security.

"We are seriously concerned at the escalation of hostilities between Israel and Iran which threatens the peace and security in the region," the MEA said in the statement.

The ministry called for an immediate de-escalation of the situation, emphasizing the importance of exercising restraint and refraining from further violence. 

Stressing the need for diplomacy to prevail, India urged both parties to step back from confrontation and seek peaceful resolutions to their differences.

"We call for immediate de-escalation, exercise of restraint, stepping back from violence and return to the path of diplomacy," the MEA said. 

India, closely monitoring the evolving situation, assured that its embassies in the region are actively engaging with the Indian community, providing support and assistance as needed.

"We are closely monitoring the evolving situation. Our Embassies in the region are in close touch with the Indian community," the MEA affirmed.

Highlighting the significance of maintaining security and stability in the region, India reiterated the importance of all parties involved prioritizing peaceful dialogue and cooperative measures. "It is vital that security and stability are maintained in the region," the MEA said.

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