The way the noose is tightening around the neck of the leaders of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in corruption cases, fears are growing that a one-party system will be enforced in Pakistan.
Opposition parties also fear that a plan has been devised by the establishment to undo the 18th Amendment to deprive the provinces of financial autonomy. Statements of a few ministers against the constitutional amendment also added to the confusion. PPP Chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari insists there is a “grand plan” in action to force the party to withdraw its support for the 18th Amendment. He terms the fake accounts case against his father and former President Asif Zardari a tool to force the party to withdraw its support for the amendment. “Zardari was implicated in the money laundering scandal because the powers-that- be were unhappy with the 18th Amendment as well as PPP’s victory in the July 25 general elections in Sindh,” he claimed recently.
Concerns about the status of the 18th Amendment grew after the Supreme Court of Pakistan took up the case and observed that there had been a lack of debate on it before its passage in the parliament. “Parliamentary debates are relevant to interpret any constitutional provision; therefore, amendments are debated in the legislatures all over the world before their enactment,” it observed. However, in the last hearing, the court clarified that it was not reviewing the 18th Amendment, but the issue of dissolution of hospitals on the basis of the amendment. It has become clear that there is no threat to the amendment and financial autonomy of the provinces. Experts say there is still room for improvement in the amendment with regard to education and health and there is no harm to debate it in parliament to make it more effective.
It is a fact that leaders of the ruling Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) have been spared in a crackdown on corruption by the Accountability Bureau (NAB), which has maligned the whole process. However, the PTI has no role in corruption cases against the PPP and PML-N leaders. The Sharif family was named in the Panama case by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in 2015. Investigations against the Zardari family in fake accounts started in 2016, when the PML-N was in power. A Joint Investigation Team (JIT) report has found him guilty of using state institutions, close aides and servants to commit corruption and launder money.
The same modus operandi was adopted by the Sharifs. A recent report submitted to the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) by seven banks says former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif transferred billions of rupees abroad in the name of his servants, employees of his Ramazan Sugar Mills and even doctors of a trust, set up in the name of his father, from 2011 to 2017. He also received over $10m during the period from abroad. Investigations are underway and more cases are expected against him in a few months.
Problems for the Sharif family have increased after the Punjab government formed a new Joint Investigation Team (JIT) team to probe the Model Town tragedy. Headed by Motorway Police Inspector General A.D. Khawaja, the team comprises Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) Lt.-Col. Atiqur Zaman, Military Intelligence (MI) Lt.-Col. Irfan Miraz and Intelligence Bureau (IB) Deputy Director Ahmed Kamal. The new JIT in the case, in which at least 14 activists of the Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT) were killed and over 100 injured by the Punjab police in Lahore’s Model Town in 2014, poses a far bigger challenge to the PML-N leadership, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif, former Punjab Law Minister Rana Sanaullah and others, than the corruption cases.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has already been sentenced to seven years in jail in the Al-Azizia/Hill Metal Establishment (HME) case. He is currently serving his sentence at the Kot Lakhpat jail in Lahore. He was given the “benefit of doubt” in the Flagship Investments corruption reference over lack of evidence. However, the court said the possibility of Nawaz Sharif being the real beneficial owner of the Flagship Investments Ltd. could not be ruled out.
PML-N President Shahbaz Sharif, who was arrested by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in the Rs14 billion Ashiana-i-Iqbal Housing Scheme case, faces at least two more corruption cases. He is accused of issuing a directive for the construction of a drain in the Chiniot district to benefit a sugar mill, owned by his sons. Over Rs200 million was spent for the drain from public money. NAB has also obtained details of his assets, which it claims, are beyond his means. The anti-graft body claims to have obtained details of his properties and vehicles from 1997 to 2004 and from 2007 to 2018. His son-in-law and younger son have already fled the country after they were summoned by NAB. His elder son Hamza Shahbaz is also under interrogation in at least two corruption cases.
It is clear that both mainstream opposition parties are in trouble after their leaders have been arrested or may soon be arrested. However, it is not the handiwork of the PTI. They will have to learn to survive without their current leaders. The PPP has survived the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto. However, it suffered badly under the leadership of Asif Ali Zardari. His possible arrest could even benefit the party. However, it will be really difficult for the PML-N to survive after the arrest of its top leadership. It also indicates the problem of a party, run by a family. The situation benefits the PTI, but it may pave the way for authoritarianism in the party and the country. In the scenario, it will have to resolve all national issues to avoid the people’s wrath.