Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is in a serious situation after the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) found that the ruling family has been living beyond its means and has failed to provide a legitimate trail of its investments abroad. The JIT is investigating corruption allegations involving the Sharif family’s role in money laundering and tax evasion, which were disclosed in the Panama Papers last year.
The findings of the JIT are not just damning for the ruling party, but also for the country’s democracy. It has become evident that the report, which appears to be politically motivated, is going to pit the country’s various civil institutions against each other. The ruling party that previously welcomed the Supreme Court’s verdict of asking for a further probe has now completely rejected the JIT’s report by terming it biased, politically motivated, and formulated to serve the agenda of Pakistan’s enemies. Meanwhile, the opposition, which seldom reconciles on any national or strategic issue, has come together to ask for Sharif’s resignation.
The ruling party is vowing not to follow any verdict that asks for Sharif’s resignation on the one hand, while, on the other hand, it appears to have veiled itself behind issues of a strategic nature, saying that the entire case of investigation is aimed at obstructing Pakistan’s economic rise. The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), on a number of occasions, has said that the investigation is not just a conspiracy against Pakistan’s democracy, but also an attempt to derail the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor’s (CPEC) implementation in the country.
In Pakistan, criminal investigations, trials, and talks of accountability only take place when primarily two issues are at stake. First, these take place when a political party in Pakistan comes to power with a deep political mandate and threatens to cut down the powers of other institutions, particularly the military establishment. Second, these occur when the country’s smaller political and religious parties see their political role diminishing and therefore willingly offer themselves for partnership with the military elite, provided their objectives regarding the ruling party align.
If the downsizing doesn’t work and threats still loom, the next step either results in the military taking over or setting up opportunist political elements, which would otherwise stand no chance of coming to power through constitutional means. From dismissing the elected civilian government in the early years after partition to the death sentence of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and eventual military interventions during the early and late-1990s, Pakistan’s democracy generally and civilian governments specifically continue to find themselves playing a very limited role in national strategic issues.
Pakistan remains a politically underdeveloped country. While there is no denying that the country’s political elite, directly or indirectly, is a by-product of the policies the military elite favored as an institution, in general, civilian institutions are not allowed to grow out of the phase where they have to concur with the military. More precisely, political parties are expected to play the role of assisting the military establishment in managing mundane national bureaucratic affairs while the latter keeps control of major strategic security and economic issues that extend beyond the country’s borders.
In the present case, Sharif’s colossal political mandate was seen as nothing less than a threat to the security establishment. Sharif’s early intentions to change Pakistan’s regional security policy after winning elections in 2013 were not welcomed by the military elite. In the following years, Sharif has been downsized to a role where his immediate and perhaps medium-term strategic concerns deal with ensuring his own survival and that of his political party.
This is not to say that the corruption-related investigation against Sharif is a hoax. However, the issue of impartial accountability becomes problematic when more than 400 other citizens whose names also appeared in the Panama Papers are let off the hook. In fact, some of them are leading the charge against the ruling family while refusing to themselves submit to similar accountability. On Sunday, Pakistan military’s media cell in a statement said that the corruption-related investigation against the Sharif family was “a sub-judice matter and the Supreme Court will make its decision in the case.” While the military has distanced itself from the case, the mere statement is being seen as presenting support to the country’s highest court in case it decides to remove Prime Minister Sharif.
What is more disappointing is that the continuous and wild political bickering among Pakistan’s political parties and allegations of rampant corruption have led to widespread public disenchantment with politicians, which creates space for non-civilian forces and their policy choices. Unless Pakistan’s civilians unite behind democratic norms, irrespective of their policy choices, ideological orientations, and political agendas, democracy in Pakistan will remain under threat.