Panama & Accountability

28 Jul

In the wake of the unanimous judgment in the Panama Papers case, there is cause for celebration but also immense introspection. The fact that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif should have, perhaps for his own benefit, stepped down while the hearings and investigation were being conducted is now crystal clear. The suicidal mistake of submitting the Qatari letter, the foolishness of using a font which had not been released to the public, and the sheer arrogance with which Nawaz Sharif proceeded were signals of the impending direction the Honourable Bench would be inclined to take. The evidence, or lack thereof, was working against the Prime Minister and his family.

Undeniably, there is unhappiness with the Supreme Court’s verdict – worse still, there is anxiety regarding the future of the democratic system. Nawaz Sharif is the 20th Prime Minister of Pakistan not able to complete his five-year term. On the surface, many are terming the verdict “judicial martial law”. While one can understand that our history, with PCO judges and otherwise, demonstrates exercise of “judicial martial law”, however, the Panama verdict is a victory for democracy in Pakistan.

The reasons why this is a victory are not ascertainable at face value of the judgment, but if one scratches the surface, there is a world of good that this judgment could do for Pakistan. Let us first ask ourselves: how did we get here? How did we get to this juncture where the thrice-elected Prime Minister was facing criminal investigation for non-disclosure of assets and sources of income? The answer is simple: our institutions are in shambles. It is not that this is a surprising fact – if you walk into a district court room for 10 minutes, you’d understand how broken the system is.

The next logical question to ask ourselves would be: how and why did we allow our institutions to be so weakened and ineffective? The Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan couldn’t function as per law; the National Accountability Bureau could not fulfill its mandate; and the Election Commission of Pakistan is clearly incompetent. You may choose to talk about “judicial martial law” but the fact is that it was only the Supreme Court which dispensed its duties faithfully and in adherence to the provisions of the Constitution and the law.

Yes, this may be problematic for democracy because the peoples’ mandate has, prime facie, been rendered null and void. The millions of people who stepped out of their homes to elect Nawaz Sharif for a third time feel, perhaps rightfully so, that their voice has been taken away from them by people who they did not even vote for. It is indeed a difficult time for Pakistan. The sad reality is that democracy has never been allowed to function, whether by judges swearing allegiance to military dictators or by the brute force of such dictators themselves. That is why there are murmurs of this being an establishment-backed plot, post-failed dharna, to oust the thorn in the military’s side but how we move forward is what will determine the progress of democracy in this country.

The Honourable Judges of the Supreme Court have stuck to the letter of the law: three judges had reserved their judgment till they felt it had been proven, beyond reasonable doubt, that Nawaz Sharif had not been able to disclose his assets and his sources of income. The disqualification was inevitable – how it was to be done was what probably resulted in this task taking over 11 months. So now there is screaming and crying that democracy has been derailed. What kind of a democracy do we have if the people we elect are not accountable to us? Admittedly, the nation brought Nawaz Sharif into power – but does that mean that the nation deserves to be lied to under the garb of democracy? There is no democracy without transparency and accountability.

Why we are unable to ensure transparency and accountability is in large part due to the military establishment, which is perhaps why, in the coming days, all stakeholders must tread with caution not to allow this to become the scene of their next takeover. The onus for protecting the democratic system is just as much on us as it is on our “leaders”: we should take a page out of Turkey’s book in this regard.

The effects of this decision can be felt already but the lesson from the verdict can only be learnt once we begin the process of reforming our institutions. This is not the end of accountability but the beginning, if we so decide. From generals to bureaucrats, the weeds must be pulled out. Fortunately or unfortunately, there won’t be an Imran Khan at every turn – nor would he necessarily like to irk the generals or those with question marks on their finances within his own party.

The Supreme Court has rendered its decision but it is the nation that will carve the masterpiece that could transform the political landscape of Pakistan for now and for our future generations. While we would not like to see our mandate nullified through an unelected institution, when that institution is the only means through which accountability can be ensured, we must seize the opportunity to reform rather than crying “judicial martial law”.

 

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