Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has managed his re-election as the ruling party head after pushing controversial election reforms through parliament, which allow politicians to continue to lead their political parties even if they have been convicted by the courts. The amendment has been challenged in the courts and could be struck down for being against the spirit of democracy. Even if not repealed, it cannot save him from trial in the accountability courts and, possibly, jail for a long term.
Merit and the rule of law, the two pillars of democracy, have been bulldozed in the process. It means a killer, dishonest person, liar and even a traitor can lead a political party in Pakistan, even after he is sentenced by the courts. In other words, an unscrupulous man can appoint the prime minister of the country if his party wins an election, even though he himself cannot become even a councilor. Legislators, who are required to be upright and trustworthy under the Constitution, have been made answerable to a person who is corrupt and convicted. The amendment aims to defy the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which had ruled that the former prime minister could not even hold public office.
Another dark aspect of the amendment was the role of the parliament. The ruling party, which enjoys an absolute majority in the National Assembly and a simple majority in the Senate, passed the bill to benefit only one person. It would have been tolerable in a dictatorship but Pakistan is supposed to be a democracy and the ruling party’s leaders spare no opportunity to castigate past dictators. No democracy in the world has ever passed such an undemocratic law. It has weakened the parliament and democracy in Pakistan. No civilized and democratic country in the world could have imagined it.
According to the government, it has amended the controversial 40-year-old Political Parties Act of 1962, which was first introduced by former President General Ayub Khan. The law was not touched by anyone for 25 years. It was later amended by President General Musharraf in 2000. It claimed the amendment was meant to neither benefit disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, nor repeal the Khatm-i-Nabuwat laws. “The bill was proposed in 2014, well before Panamagate surfaced. There is no question of it being passed to benefit one man (Nawaz Sharif),” Federal Law Minister Zahid Hamid told the National Assembly. Later, the government admitted “clerical mistakes” in the Khatm-i-Nabuwat declaration and restored it to its original form. According to the government, a total of 111 meetings of the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms and its subcommittees were held and they were attended by representatives of all parliamentary parties. However, no one raised any objection to the bill.
It appears the government had made amendments purposefully to obtain some objectives, but the opposition parties could not detect its intentions. Like changes in the Khatm-i-Nabuwat declaration, the law allowing a convict to lead a political party could not have been acceptable to the opposition if it had been alert to the situation. As one amendment was only aimed to benefit only one person (Nawaz Sharif), the other was to paint the ruling party as a liberal party, fighting extremists in and outside the parliament. The message was for international forces, which determine the fate of Pakistan in every election. During his recent visit to the US, Foreign Minister Khawaja Asif described his party as more liberal than the rival Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) of Imran Khan. The message was clear that only the ruling party can advance the Western agenda in Pakistan.
The new clause in the Elections Bill has also cast doubts on the four-year effort of the government and the opposition to reform electoral laws and pave the way for free and fair elections in 2018. The re-election of Nawaz Sharif as president of the PML-N for another four years says it all. The fallout of other amendments will come to the fore after the next election. The ruling party argues that it has only removed flaws in the law, which was introduced by a military dictator to separate legitimate civilian leaders from their parties. However, its argument falls flat due to the fact that the PML-N had to amend its own constitution to re-elect Nawaz Sharif. It means the party’s own constitution did not allow a convict to lead the party.
Nawaz Sharif has started talking about waging a war for the empowerment of the people, parliament and democracy after his disqualification. It took him over four years to realize that the people lack basic facilities and the parliament is weak. However, it does not appeal to the people and other parties because the talk has started only after his disqualification. When Nawaz Sharif had been in power for four years, he could have empowered the people, democracy and the parliament, but he attended parliamentary sessions only 20 times. He only reached out to parliament when he was in crisis. The election law was amended when he was disqualified.
The former prime minister believes his re-election will save the party from groupings. It has worked for the time-being. However, the situation will change when he is sentenced and jailed for corruption, tax evasion, money laundering and illegal assets. The amendment to the election clause, which paved the way for him to head his party again, also aims to confront the Supreme Court of Pakistan. As more corruption evidence against him and his family is expected from Dubai and London, jail is just weeks away for them. It is yet to be seen whether he runs the affairs of his party from jail or resigns. He believes he will become more popular after serving his sentence which could be at least 14 years. But jail on corruption charges never pays. He should keep the example of former President Asif Ali Zardari in mind.