Accountability or regime change?


Another déjà vu moment is knocking at our doors. The Supreme Court has reserved its verdict on the Panama Leaks case implicating the Prime Minister and his family. Will Nawaz Sharif will be disqualified or will he narrowly escape the so-called accountability noose? We shall find out rather soon. By now it’s clear that the Panama case is viewed by all partisans as a validation of their respective positions and biases.

The opposition leader Imran Khan views this moment as validation of his long held view that the two large parties — Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) and the Pakistan People’s Party — are tainted with corrupt practices representing the biggest problem faced by the country. Khan is not entirely wrong as both parties have had questionable stints in power and did little to strengthen the accountability processes. But this diagnosis misses out on the permanent institutions of the state – the civil-military bureaucracy and the judiciary – that have been, and remain, virtually unaccountable. The PPP has an axe to grind. Wasn’t Nawaz at the forefront of the memogate case when their government was brought to its knees over an alleged letter written to the United States, a foreign power, for intervention should there be a coup in Pakistan. Similarly, the PMLN vociferously supported the disqualification of the PPP’s PM Yousaf Raza Gilani for not writing a letter to reopen investigation into its leader’s ‘corruption’.

The conspiracy mantra has turned into a joke in popular culture; when pushed for a clear answer the Defence Minister had to deny the so-called ‘conspiracy’ on record

This alignment of political objectives has found a sizeable support within the media. In part it is partisan but largely the younger mediapersons relate to the fight-corruption-at-all-costs campaign. After all, corruption is an everyday reality in Pakistan and nothing gets done without paying a bribe or influence peddling. Even getting a train ticket for a busy route sometimes requires some level of intervention. The influential electronic media, except the GEO network, is by and large supportive of the ‘campaign’ to throw out Nawaz government. And this is why the Panama case is so huge that many a commentator has been calling it the defining moment for the country’s future. Sadly, such moments have come and gone since 1950s with little or no structural change. For instance, the lawyers’ and judges’ movement (2007-2009) was also viewed as transformational. Frankly, it was not, and actually ended up establishing some terrible judicial precedents. The 2014 dharna organised around election rigging has not resulted in even the most basic of electoral reforms. This is why the ruling party thinks Panama is all about ‘regime change.’

The Prime Minister and his party appear to be convinced that there is a grand conspiracy afoot to dislodge the government. What cannot be done in the electoral arena – given the patronage-driven politics – can be achieved through the judicial process. The Prime Minister’s reference to ‘puppets’, ‘circus’ and other such innuendos are direct calls to the elements of the security establishment who in his party’s opinion may be orchestrating his judicial exit. While Panama leaks were global and certainly not the handiwork of Pakistani establishment, the alleged ‘management’ of the Joint Investigation Team by the deep state has been cited as evidence. A conspiracy by definition is difficult to prove and in this particular case it is even more arduous, if not impossible, to establish. This is why the conspiracy mantra has turned into a joke in popular culture and when pushed for a clear answer the Defence Minister had to deny the so-called ‘conspiracy’ on record.

What, after all, is the conflict between Nawaz Sharif and the establishment? Prima facie, Sharif has played along during the last four years. He has allowed the military to have the say in foreign and security policies. Notwithstanding DAWN leaks scandal, there is little in practical terms the Sharif government did that defied the national security doctrine set since the 1970s. His original sin has been to actually get one of the former Army chiefs indicted for constitutional deviation. This is a first in Pakistan’s history and has cost him dearly. The converse argument is that he also allowed Musharraf to leave the country. Is it about Sharif’s strong position, if not further bled by a thousand cuts before the elections, to return as PM in 2018? Or is it about the growing civilian space and constitutional arrangements that have reduced the options for direct intervention of the military? These are questions pundits have been mulling for years and there are no clear-cut answers.

Regardless of such quandaries, influential segments of political and civil society want some heads to roll. Even if Sharif escapes the Supreme Court scrutiny, his woes are far from over.

Tailpiece: A passagefrom’Pakistan – A Dream Gone Sour’ authored by  former bureaucrat Roedad Khan who personified the establishment for decades. Things may be changing slowly but it’s not going to be so quick. ‘Whatever the constitutional position, in the final analysis defacto sovereignty in Pakistan (Majestasest summa in civas ac subditoeslegibusquesolutapotestas i.e. ‘highest power over citizens and subjects unrestrained by law in the words of French Jurist Jean Bodin’) resides neither in the electorate, nor the Parliament, nor the judiciary, nor even the constitution which has superiority over all the institutions it creates. It resides, where the coercive power resides. It is the ‘pouvoirocculte’ which is the ultimate authority in the decision making process in Pakistan.’


Published in Daily Times, July 23, 2017: Accountability or regime change?

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