The other side of the panama ruling

The other side of the panama ruling

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

On not so historic a day, the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s ruling on Panama leaks just fell short of what it was meant to be: a clear-cut verdict. The order for further investigation by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) has, therefore, prolonged a controversy that has already consumed more than a year and is likely to continue to inform Pakistan’s political landscape for a few more months, or may be until the next general election due to be held in early 2018.

Notwithstanding what the ‘judgement’ says and regardless of the fact that it has fell short of disqualifying a serving Prime Minister, there are larger questions involved, questions that have been largely ignored by both the opposition parties and the government.

While recent years have seen a number of JITs being established with regard to probing into the dynamics of violence in Karachi, the JIT in this regard involves a critical question about the state and strength of democracy in Pakistan and stands as a direct challenge to ‘civilian supremacy.’

In this regard, the involvement of military intelligence agencies, such as Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in this JIT is setting a precedent whereby civil institutes are once again relegated to a secondary position and non-civilian apparatus of the state gain unusual importance in determining issues that otherwise are of ‘national importance’ but purely political in nature.

Therefore, far from being a historic decision, the verdict seems to be rooted in Pakistan’s typical political dynamics wherein military has always remained directly and indirectly involved in political matters and has yielded a sort of influence that goes far beyond its constitutional role.

In this context, the verdict has opened up a socio-political conundrum whereby not only will the Prime Minister of Pakistan’s ordeal will continue but will also see a fresh political tussle between state institutes.

While it is ironic to see the highest civil institute of Pakistan expressing a lack of trust in subordinate institutes and favouring the inclusion of non-civilian institutes, a student of the political history of Pakistan is most likely to see in this particular verdict a continuity of the (controversial) role that the Supreme Court has been playing since 1950s in sanctioning a lopsided political landscape.

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Starting from 1954, for instance, the historic verdict of the Supreme Court that upheld the then Governor General, Ghulam Mohammad’s unconstitutional dismissal of the first Constituent Assembly of Pakistan under the ‘doctrine of necessity’, the Supreme Court of Pakistan’s history is a fascinating story of controversial decisions—decisions that involve not only the hanging of a prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in 1978, but also constitutional sanctioning of military regimes of Zia-ul-Haq (1977-1988) and Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008).

In this context, the apex court’s fresh reversion to the non-civilian institutes should be considered to be a political anomaly rather than a healthy sign for the development of democracy and civil institutes.

Therefore, while a number of political pundits have argued that it will be for the first time in the country`s history that a sitting prime minister will appear before an investigation team probing allegations of financial wrongdoing, the fact that the involvement of the intelligence agencies in a purely financial inquiry would have serious political ramifications cannot be understated nor can it be simply looked upon as an ‘all inclusive’ inquiry aimed at ensuring transparency and impartiality.

What, therefore, it would do is add to the political power of institutions which are not supposed to play any role whatsoever in such matters in a democracy that Pakistan claims to be.

Similarly, if we stretch the conundrum further to include the role political parties are themselves playing in this regard, what we see is a clear absence of an anti-corruption discourse that goes beyond the resignation of a serving prime minister’s and that may involve the question of larger institutional reforms.

In the absence of such institutional reforms, the central problem that the whole Panama leaks has raised—the problem that long-standing political families in the country use the system to enhance their personal wealth — will potentially stay unresolved and its long term socio-political consequences largely absent.

Even a cursory look at the way this whole case has been publicly projected and fought on various fronts—in the parliament, the roads and the Court—shows a remarkable focus on its being a duel between Nawaz Sharif, the sitting Prime Minister, and Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI). 

With political parties themselves playing no role in taking the question to the level of institutional reforms, what is left is a clear path for non-civilian institutes — popularly assumed to be strong and corruption free — to steer themselves into straightforward political matters of this and other sort and thus prevent the growth of democracy.

What, in this context, the Panama ruling has done is that it has unmistakably reinforced Pakistan’s perennial political conundrum wherein civil institutes, which constitute the flesh and bone of democracy, remain weak and least worthy of attention of the main drivers of political processes i.e., political parties.

Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist based in Pakistan. His areas of interest include politics of terrorism, global war on terror, ethno-national conflicts, foreign policies of major powers, application and consequences.