Pakistan is slowly gearing up for another round of political instability. By all accounts, the Prime Minister and his political fortunes are likely to suffer as a special investigation committee probes the first family’s wealth. The investigation is likely to be completed in early July and thereafter the Supreme Court will review its findings and come up with a final verdict of sorts. The Panama Papers case is far more than a question of tax evasion and unexplained offshore wealth. It is being viewed as an instrument of regime change by the opposition and perhaps sections of security establishment who are wary of Nawaz Sharif’s capture of electoral politics that may well give his party another term in office.
The judicialisation of politics in Pakistan has been a recurring theme. Political actors and even the military have been seeking mediation from the courts to achieve their respective political goals. The courts for instance ratified all coups in the country and during 1988-1999 played along with dismissals of elected governments. Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal of the government in 1993 was an exception. Since then, three things have changed: the 1999 coup represented a falling out of Nawaz Sharif with his former patrons in the establishment; the courts have emerged as independent players in the system; and the military since 2008 has avoided direct takeovers after the troubled Musharraf years.
The best thing to have happened since the Panama leaks is that public demand of accountability and institutional failures have entered into mainstream debates
Since the JIT started its work, one controversy or another has marred its credibility. The media is polarised with journalists attacking each other over reporting and coverage. The opposition leader Imran Khan and his party have jumped into the fray and gone to the extent of boycotting GEO which is the country’s largest private TV network. In these muddied waters, the final verdict will be contested and controversial. If Nawaz escapes disqualification, Imran Khan and his supporters in the media will raise questions leading to another round of protests. Nothing better to galvanise public support in the election year. If the verdict fires Nawaz Sharif, then his party will question it and blame the deep state for orchestration. In short, there will be more instability, which suits the ultimate goal of keeping the parliamentary process in check. Since the removal of 58-2b — the provision that enabled the establishment to fire a prime minister — other means are being used to keep the power balance tilted in favour of the unelected institutions.
This is going to be another long, rancorous summer. The dominant story being told in urban Pakistan is one of mighty kleptocrats brought to their knees, forced to explain how they accumulated assets on such a scale — finally receiving their comeuppance through public pressure and institutional investigation. Perhaps there is an element of truth to all of this. But to view the whole spectacle without thinking of its true historical and political context would be a grave error of judgment.
After his appearance before the JIT, Nawaz reminded his opponents that the ultimate decision on who is eligible to govern (or not) will be taken at the polls next year. Politically focused public pressure, no matter how important it may be, cannot replace the electoral and constitutional political processes. This is why an ousted Nawaz Sharif will still remain a problem. And if his daughter escapes the Panama hit, then Sharif dynasty will continue to be a force with which to be reckoned.
Yet, Pakistan’s unfortunate history has a clear pattern. A decade of civilian rule is succeeded by an authoritarian phase. Even under the so-called civilian governments, full powers are not transferred to the elected representatives. The only exception was Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s tenure and we all know how it ended and with what consequences for the country. Yet, there are reasons why the 2008-2018 period may be followed by another elected civilian government. Pakistan is not the same country as it was two decades ago and the military has a lot to handle on the borders as well as internal security challenges to address. So it might avoid extra constitutional experiments. But we cannot be sure until the moment of reckoning arrives.
Nawaz Sharif with all his flaws, some of which are unfixable, symbolises civilian ascendancy. First his election was delegitimised and for two years the opposition and sections within the establishment launched a massive movement. He did not resign and the charges of rigging could not be proved by a high level judicial commission. Yet the Panama case is altogether different. The best thing to have happened since last year is that public demand of accountability and institutional failures are being highlighted. One can only hope that this political momentum will be directed towards substantial reform of institutions and effective legislation by the next Parliament. Otherwise it would reinforce a fundamental truth not lost on anyone in Pakistani politics, regardless of their political persuasion.
And that truth is that some institutions of state, especially elected ones, are more accountable than the others. An elected Prime Minister — not the first time — faces the music, while an unelected former President gets his motorcade diverted to a military hospital rather than the Court with impunity. Today, the same former President appears on Pakistani television regularly, and is a prominent critic of the alleged ineptitude, tyranny and corruption of the current administration.
We are all accountable in Pakistan, it would seem, but some of us far more than others.
Published in Daily Times, June 24, 2017: This summer Pakistan enters into another phase of instability