Panama Verdict: Where will it lead Pakistan to?

Panama Verdict: Where will it lead Pakistan to?

Salman Rafi Sheikh,

At 70, Pakistan seems to be a nation finally embarking on sound democratic process. At least, this is what Pakistan’s main opposition political parties seem to believe today when a popularly elected Prime Minister has been disqualified on various charges, which included charges of corruption and money laundering. A historic day in the political history of Pakistan, or is it?

The Disqualification!

In a 25 page long short-decision, the Supreme Court of Pakistan declared that Nawaz Sharif was no longer qualified enough to hold the seat, triggering huge political crisis in Pakistan, leading people to speculate as to whether assemblies will be dissolved or a military coup will happen. Thanks to the Muslim League’s timely response to the crisis, these speculations have already died down with the PML-N leadership making it clear that the government will complete its tenure, and that new elections will be held only when constitutionally due. Until then, the strongest candidate for the next PM, so far, is Punjab’s current chief minister and Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif. PML-N, which has also rejected the decision, is thus equally poised to keep the Sharif family’s hold on the government and the party.

The Army has kept its silence so far, avoiding direct involvement in the case and allowing the Supreme Court and other state institutions to do their work, and nipping all rumors of coup to bud. But disqualification in itself is a very significant political development, with far reaching consequences for the future of Pakistan. An important question to be considered in this context is: what this disqualification will lead Pakistan to in the long run?

What’s the long and short of it?

Let’s not forget that it is not for the first time that a sitting PM has been disqualified in Pakistan. On June 19, 2012, Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani was sent home packing on charges of contempt of court. Disqualification of sitting prime ministers is, however, a relatively new entrant to Pakistan’s chequered political history. Whereas in the past, assemblies were dissolved and fresh elections were held almost every two years in the 1990s (read: the ‘decade of democracy’ and an era of indirect establishment interventions), the ‘new practice’ of disqualifying prime ministers has accordingly been taken to mean by some people an easy and new way of managing politics from ‘behind the scene.’

A number of people in Pakistan, therefore, seem to believe that this verdict is more of a ‘judicial coup’ than a show of institutional strength of the higher judiciary. Notwithstanding the speculations prevailing in Pakistan, there is no gainsaying that no other prime minister or even any other elite politician has faced such a high level of public and judicial scrutiny than Nawaz Sharif and his family have.

It cannot also be denied that the verdict against Nawaz Sharif can have far reaching implications. While Nawaz Sharif is not the first PM to face disqualification, the fact cannot be denied that a political leader, who has roots in Pakistan’s center of power-politics (read: central Punjab) can be sent home. While Gilani was sent home, his Siraiki identity did little to dispel the impression that Prime Ministers only from smaller provinces or Punjab’s relatively backward regions could face disqualification, replacement or straight dismissals.

The verdict, in this sense, is not only historic but also carries a significant political message as far as the question of Punjab’s domination of Pakistan is concerned. Not only does it point to Punjab’s continuously cracking hegemony, but also signify that the (traditional) nature of politics in Pakistan is changing.

For instance, the case itself and coverage it has received in Pakistan have both seemingly determined that politicians, who are traditionally believed to be little ‘larger than life’ in Pakistan, and brazenly live beyond their known and legal sources of income and wealth can no longer continue that style of politics, or at least in that brazen a way.

However, while a lot seems to be different in 2017 as compared to the decade of 1990s, a closer look would show that a lot hasn’t changed as well.

For instance, while the Supreme Court of Pakistan has shown considerable restraint towards the political crisis and an atmosphere of uncertainty that threatened to engulf it, and it has unambiguously demonstrated its ability to further the cause of accountability and strengthen the democratic project, the onus of strengthening Pakistan`s political culture on democratic basis is still on political leadership.

As such, the important question is: can a mere public celebration, duly supported and funded by the ‘victorious parties’, of Sharif’s exit from power be itself taken to mean that democracy is gaining strength in Pakistan? An answer to this question needs to be historically qualified

Most of the media talks and public jubilation shown over the days preceding today’s verdict and on the day of verdict show a marked similarity to the ‘public opinion’ in the 1990s when (late) Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif were both dismissed twice each between 1990 and 1999. According to a prominent Pakistani academic and journalist, Aasim Sajjad Akhtar, such public jubilation as well as hopes of democracy gaining strength in the wake of such dismissals and disqualifications can be easily traced back to the 1970s when Pakistan’s first popularly elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was sent home and subsequently hanged as well.

According to Akhtar, such successive episodes of dismissals, overtly inspired by the hopes of strengthening democracy, only serves to reinforce the pessimism about Pakistan’s inability to evolve into a sound and stable democracy.

This pessimism and the absence of real structural and institutional change is due greatly to the fact that, as the above mentioned examples of dismissals of different prime ministers over the period of 70 years show, that the process of accountability and scrutiny has never virtually expanded beyond the otherwise ‘damn politicians’ in Pakistan.

Once again, this disqualification has raised pertinent questions about sustaining the process of accountability in Pakistan and bringing other state institutions in its purview. While constitutionally all state institutes can be held accountable for their actions, the history of Pakistan shows that this process has remained largely restricted to the executive branch of the government only.

While a mere disqualification of a prime minister does not and cannot be taken to mean that democracy itself is facing a threat, today’s otherwise historic decision has once again shown that the concept of accountability in Pakistan has a very narrow and limited application.

Therefore, the only pertinent question that must be raised here, an answer to which by the dispensers of justice and accountability will determine the future of Pakistan, is this: will this process of accountability see application in the otherwise non-political and non-elected avenues of power in Pakistan?  If the process remains largely restricted in the long turn, it will keep Pakistan’s chief centers of power largely unaffected and unaccountable—something that will keep Pakistan’s democracy qualitatively undemocratic.