Political squabble for now

May 8, 2016

How is the Panama Leaks aftermath going to affect the political system, more particularly the political fortunes of the PML-N?

Political squabble for now

In a latest development, the country’s opposition parties have reached a consensus upon the Terms of Reference (ToR) for the judicial commission in the wake of Panama Leaks, urging that accountability must begin from the prime minister and his family.

The ruling PML-N has, expectedly, rejected the opposition’s TORs, saying these are attempts to destabilise the government and politically target Prime Minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. Still, it has expressed its readiness to enter into a dialogue with the opposition on the issue.

Last week, the 9-member committee of the opposition reached a consensus on the ToRs that calls for completing investigations against the prime minister and his family within three months. It also seeks the services of international audit experts with regards to the investigation.

Analysts think that while the issue has succeeded in uniting the opposition against the government, the opposition is showing extraordinary maturity in trying to solve the problem on the negotiating table instead of "rocking the boat".

About a month ago, the Panama Leaks exposed as many as 200 rich Pakistanis owning offshore companies abroad, including all three children of the country’s three-time elected Prime Minister Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. This raised the political temperature of the country and voices of opposition became louder, seeking nothing less than the resignation of Sharif.

The issue of politicians’ ‘corruption’ also brought the civil-military imbalance to the fore and one saw some immediate muscle-flexing by the military high-ups. The army chief publicly said "there should be accountability across the board and there should be no tolerance against corruption." A couple of days later, he took action against six army officers including two generals for their proven corruption.

Analysts believe these messages are a direct indication of putting pressure to hold the Sharif family accountable and answerable for hiding these properties. Others describe it as setting an example for politicians to follow and building pressure on the politicians and judiciary "to not accept corruption".

"We believe the prime minister should not hesitate in presenting himself for accountability first. It should begin with the PM and his family because it is a matter of prestige for the country, and also because the PM is the chief executive of the country," says Aitzaz Ahsan, lawyer and senator belonging to Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).

"If the government decides to hold a dialogue with the opposition parties the way it has announced, it can sustain itself in a better way."

"If the prime minister’s family has made these properties legally, why are they hiding their money trail," asks Ahsan. "We also demand that [once completed] this inquiry report should be made public, and accountability of all others named in the Panama Papers is conducted after the PM."

Another pile of Panama Leaks is scheduled to be made public on May 9 that includes around 400 Pakistani businessmen and politicians and other notables.

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Zahid Hussain, senior political and security analyst, says the accusations on the prime minister’s family are "more serious and direct this time and it seems they are difficult to defend" and that is why the ruling family is vulnerable at this point.

"Though there are no widespread street protests at the moment, like the ones in 2014 against the alleged rigging in general elections 2013, this time what is targeted is not an institution like the Election Commission of Pakistan but it’s the prime minister and his family that are directly accused for holding properties abroad," says Hussain.

So how is it going to affect the political system, more particularly the political fortunes of the PML-N? "It is like a political squabble at the moment. Both sides [the government and the opposition] are trying to put pressure on each other. These are pressure tactics which the parties use generally. However, the government is in no danger. There is pressure on the government but it is trying its best to diffuse it," says senior analyst I.A. Rehman.

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Others share this view. Television anchor Fawad Chaudhry says although the opposition appears to be united, it is too weak to derail the government. "It seems the government is on a strong footing at the moment. Besides, it is likely that the chief justice of Pakistan might decline the request of forming a judicial commission in the current situation," he says. "If the commission is not formed, there could be more pressure on the government. But this is something that will be seen in the coming few weeks."

Zahid Hussain on the contrary thinks the dynamics of politics have changed this time. A few months ago people were assuming that the PM Sharif was becoming strong and power was tilting towards the civilian regime "but these Panama Papers have once again changed the axis of power. The military has also got space to put pressure on the government and the recent statement of Chief of Army Staff where he has called for across the board accountability is evident of this."

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Chaudhry says if the army increases pressure on the government in any way, "it will be difficult for the government to manage the situation".

Hussain says at the moment there is pressure on the government and the PM but the latter has not lost much. "If the government decides to hold a dialogue with the opposition parties the way it has announced, it can sustain itself in a better way."

He says that, as of now, the Supreme Court is reluctant to take up the matter nor does it have investigative powers. If the pressure mounts in the coming days, "there is a possibility the PM would have to step down on these serious allegations because the properties owned by the Sharif family are under discussion since 1997, and it seems difficult for him to justify them in a straightforward way."

Political compulsions apart, it remains a fact that there is an increasing acceptance for corruption in our society. I.A. Rehman says there should be accountability of every institution and every person. "Also everybody whose name appears in the Panama Papers’ list should be probed turn by turn. You can start with Nawaz Sharif and a few others. Accountability and democracy should go side by side. One should not try to derail democracy in the name of accountability and corruption."

Political squabble for now