Through a historic judgment, the Supreme Court has disqualified Nawaz Sharif for life and ordered the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to file references against him, his children and ex-finance minister Ishaq Dar. It is for the third time that Nawaz Sharif has been ousted from power on corruption charges. The verdict in the Panama leaks case involving corruption allegations against the Sharif family was unanimous by the five-member bench, headed by Justice Asif Saeed Khan Khosa. It may be recalled here that two members of the bench, Justice Khosa and Justice Gulzar, had already held Nawaz guilty on April 20. But three judges opted for a further two-month investigation through a joint investigation team, before coming to a final decision.
The Panama Papers which hit the headlines last year implicated Sharif’s three children – his daughter Maryam and sons Hasan and Hussain – in the corruption scandal. At the heart of the case was the legal status of the funds used by the Sharif family to purchase several high-end London properties via offshore companies. The Panama leaks resulted in a case by the opposition parties, particularly Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf and Jamaat-e-Islami which requested the Supreme Court to investigate the foreign assets of ex-PM Nawaz and his family. The Joint Investigation Team formed by the apex court found “significant disparity” between the family’s income and lifestyle, and discovered Nawaz Sharif’s new links to companies based in the United Arab Emirates. The JIT had unearthed that Nawaz had been an office bearer of his elder son’s company in the UAE, something he had not declared in his nomination papers for the 2013 election. The court cited it as the reason for declaring that he was “not honest” and hence ineligible to continue as premier as per Article 62 of the constitution. The verdict has evoked two kinds of reaction. The PTI and other opposition parties were jubilant, while in Lahore and some other cities of Punjab sporadic protests broke out, with N League’s supporters burning tyres and holding street demonstrations.
The unprecedented judicial verdict against a sitting prime minister is a watershed event in the country’s history and a step forward towards establishing the rule of law. It also signifies a milestone in the development of an independent judiciary. The development is a serious blow to dynastic politics that has stood in the way of development of democratic institutions and values in the country. The Panama ruling along with indictment of other family members has upended the Sharif family’s dynastic succession plan.
The disqualification of Nawaz Sharif and beginning of an accountability process against his family is a major victory for the PTI. But for the relentless campaign of Imran Khan and his party, the accountability of elected officials would not likely have been at the centre of the national political discourse. The Panama Papers case itself was almost single-handedly kept alive in legal and political circles by the PTI supremo. But the process should not stop here. Corruption is rampant in Pakistan, with the country ranked 116th out of 176 countries, according to the report of Transparency International in 2017. Efforts should now be made to widen the accountability net with the aim to expand it to all elected officials and institutions of the state. All those named in the Panama Papers, no matter which party they belong to, should be investigated, so that justice is done. The SC judgment has transformed the political landscape of the country. Nawaz Sharif could have resigned and saved the country from another tumultuous political episode or he could have provided the money trail that the Supreme Court repeatedly asked his children to provide. But Nawaz Sharif chose to do neither. In this connection, a question being widely asked is whether Nawaz Sharif will be able to keep the party united. Over the years Nawaz Sharif has developed a strong political constituency in the length and breadth of Punjab. He also enjoys the backing of the powerful Punjab establishment. But in the past, cracks developed in the party in adverse situations. An example was the formation of PML-Q after Musharraf’s coup. The survival of the party unity will also depend on the ability of the PPP and PTI to make inroads in the PML-N stronghold in Punjab.
The country is once again at a critical moment in its political history. It is the responsibility of all political parties to help steer the country on the democratic path. Pakistan’s late flowering democratic experiment must not be derailed by any rash action on the part of any party. A new prime minister has been elected followed by the formation of a new cabinet. The new PML-N government will see things through until the general elections next year. All parties should prepare for that without disturbing the political waters. But the main responsibility in this regard rests on the shoulders of PML-N some of whose stalwarts seem to be in a confrontationist and belligerent mood.