The Panama corruption case in Pakistan seems to have been stretched to its limits as the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) has given extensive time and opportunity to the lawyers of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to prove that the chief executive did not buy off-shore companies and property in London with ill-gotten money. Hopefully, there will be a verdict by the court on the issue, sooner rather than later. Whatever the outcome of the Panama corruption case, it will significantly impact the political dynamics in the coming months and years and specifically would have a strong bearing on the next general elections whenever they are held. Constitutionally, the present government of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will complete its tenure in May 2018 and there would have to be general elections within 90 days of the completion of the tenure or the dissolution of the National Assembly by the prime minister himself. As extreme hot weather prevails in the months of June, July and August in the length and breadth of the country, it would be next to impossible to hold general elections in these months. Therefore, the next elections would have to be arranged before, or by May 2018, because the holding of elections cannot be delayed by a single day exceeding 90 days. But notwithstanding the timing of the next general elections the political consequences of the Panama Leaks issue would be extremely important. Irrespective of the judgment of the SCP regarding the case, its political consequences will be disturbing and even extremely damaging for the ruling party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Prima facie, PM Sharif has failed to prove his innocence in the SCP regarding the grave charges, of buying off-shore companies and property in London through laundered ill-gotten money transferred illegally from Pakistan during the previous two governments of the PML-N in the 1990s. In short, it could only be a miracle which would save PM Sharif from getting an adverse judgment in the case from the SCP. In that case the political consequences for the PML-N and PM Sharif would be devastating. Both would not be in a position to garner support for the party campaign for the next general elections. In case the SCP would hand down punishment to PM Sharif by declaring that he breached public trust and, therefore, he is disqualified, then most likely he would not be able to personally take part in the next general elections. So the PML-N, which has always revolved around the personality of PM Sharif, would have very dim prospects of winning any majority in the next general elections. It might not even win a couple of dozen seats of the NA and would most probably also lose its political fort, the Punjab.
The PTI would derive maximum advantage from this situation. It is because of the fact that the other main opposition party the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) does not have a strong base and organizational network in the Punjab province, which has the largest number of seats in the NA and from where the PML-N has been getting most of its parliamentary seats. The only hope of the PPP in the Punjab was its co-chairperson, Bilawal Bhutto. However, the much-delayed campaign by Bilawal to revive the PPP in the Punjab did not get any worthwhile response from masses. He could not even gather 5,000 people during a recent much-trumpeted Punjab campaign in the populous city of Faisalabad. On the other hand the PTI, despite very negative media coverage, has got a substantial number of votes in all the bye-elections in the Punjab. Moreover the size of public participation in the gatherings of the party in the Punjab has been huge. For instance, the PTI won the NA seat from Lodhran which it lost in the May 2013 general elections. In the Lahore bye elections for a NA seat, which had been vacated by Speaker Ayaz Sadiq’s disqualification by the Election Commission of Pakistan, the contest between the PTI and PML-N remained neck –to-neck. In fact, the PTI won one of the Punjab Assembly seats falling within the same NA constituency in Lahore, which was won in 2013 by Punjab Chief Minister Shahbaz Sharif. All these facts show that the PTI has become a force to reckon with in the Punjab. The success of its petition in the SCP against alleged corruption of PM Sharif would further boost the prospects of the PTI in the next general elections, especially in the Punjab.
The PPP may lose some of its political constituency in Sindh province due to the reluctant role of the party in the Panama Leaks issue. Once PM Sharif is disqualified, or gets an adverse verdict, the PPP, which has not become party to the Panama case in the SCP would have little to gain politically. In case of an adverse decision against PM Sharif by the SCP, the small parochial and clerical political groups, including the Jamiat-e-Ulema-e-Islam-Fazl (JUI-F), Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PkMAP), Awami National Party (ANP) and National Party (NP), which are either coalition partners of PML-N government at the centre and Balochistan, or are close allies, would lose political standing. In the event PM Sharif would escape an adverse decision, even in this case the political prospects of the PML-N in the next general elections would receive a severe blow, although the political impact for the party and the Sharif clan may not be as severe as could be in the event of the disqualification of PM Sharif.
The atmospherics of the Panama Leaks issue has immensely affected the reputation of the party and its driving spirit, the Sharif family, in the public eye. In particular the bizarre way the ministers, parliamentarians and spokespersons of the PML-N and Sharifs, have attacked political opponents, specifically the PTI leadership, has diminished the stature of the party and Sharifs among the masses. Noticeably, the manner in which the PML-N spokespersons have attacked PTI Chairman Imran Khan, who irrespective of his politics, has huge public appeal for being a national cricketing celebrity and his philanthropist work, has damaged PML-N among bipartisan or indecisive voters.
In case PM Sharif escapes disqualification or any other adverse verdict in the SCP, the PPP would gain out of the situation. Because the party would then tell the electorate that it had foretold that there would be no conviction of PM Sharif, as it was the lesson which the party had learnt from history. In such a situation, the PPP argument would hold a lot of water.Therefore, those who argue that leveling of charges against PM Sharif and his family would be inconsequential are at best naïve. The impact is going to be marked.