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Saturday April 20, 2024

Toshakhana verdict

By Editorial Board
October 22, 2022

In so many ways, it seems we have come full circle since the 2018 election and the ugliness which completed that exercise. At that time, Mian Nawaz Sharif was disqualified as a member of parliament, as a consequence of which he could also no longer head his own party. As is always the case in Pakistan, history repeats itself – this time in the Toshakhana case, with former prime minister Imran Khan facing the same verdict from an Election Commission that he has repeatedly said he does not believe in. The Election Commission of Pakistan in a unanimous verdict announced on Friday disqualified Imran Khan for not sharing details of Toshakhana gifts and proceeds from their sale during his time as prime minister. The ECP has said that Imran Khan made a false statement and committed the offence of corrupt practices punishable under Section 174 of the Election Act. Imran’s seat in the National Assembly has been declared vacant and the verdict has called for the initiation of legal action against him. Obtaining gifts from the Toshakhana through legal means was not the issue here or even selling them but that Imran did not declare them as a parliamentarian has been seen as grounds for disqualification.

Naturally, the PTI has decided to challenge the ECP decision in the higher courts. There is a general perception – informed also by most legal opinion regarding the issue – that the higher courts may just strike down the ECP verdict and rule in favour of Imran. The PTI claims that the ECP verdict does not mean disqualification but de-seating. There is also confusion regarding the duration of the disqualification, with some legal observers saying Imran stands disqualified for five years while others saying the order only applies for the ‘time being’, meaning one term, and that he will be able to take part in the 2023 general elections. Imran Khan has reacted in a video message and repeated much of the same against PDM parties, saying he knew this would happen and that the most popular party in the country is being targeted.

Probably the biggest setback the PTI has faced since its leader stood on a container and rode an easy route to power, the Toshakhana case was being seen as the former PM’s Achilles heel. While this is no doubt a reality check perhaps for a politician seen as having been pampered into politics, there is little to suggest that Imran will lose his core support because of the ECP verdict. Such has been the success of both his foreign conspiracy narrative as well as the daily mantras against the ‘biased’ chief election commissioner that it is hard to think that Imran will see any real reduction in his populist appeal. The most important question at the moment is whether Imran Khan can remain the PTI’s chairman – even till the matter is decided on by a court of law. The Nawaz Sharif precedent says he may have to give up chairing the party. And if so, who will step into his shoes as party chair? For a party that is largely built around one man’s larger-than-life person, this may be a tough one to resolve.

All eyes will now be on the courts: will the Nawaz precedent haunt Imran? Or will we see a change in jurisprudence? And if there is a change how does that affect Nawaz Sharif? If anything, is this all leading to the much-sought-after ‘level playing field’? The PTI is already on the warpath – though Imran has told his supporters to call off their street agitation. In a reversal of fortunes, the government and its allies are going to town with the ‘corruption’ tag – this time worn by Imran Khan. Perhaps the PTI and its leader can walk down memory lane and see how they had celebrated Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification. They had been warned by saner minds at the time that in politics in Pakistan nothing lasts forever – especially powerful patronage. So, we now have a situation where Imran Khan cannot hold his seat in parliament. At the same time, we have a party on the warpath even though it had accepted similar verdicts against other parties. All this cannot be good for Pakistan, even though the merit of the ECP judgment, the question of honesty, dishonesty, and the entire issue of Articles 62 and 63 needs to be considered in greater depth and with greater foresight and thought by parliamentarians and legal experts.