Whose accountability next?

The people of Pakistan would be disappointed if accountability drives were selective, instead of being across the board

Whose accountability next?

Such is the nature of politics in Pakistan that Mian Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the Supreme Court of Pakistan as member of the National Assembly and stripped of his job as the prime minister, but he continues to call the shots by choosing his successor and giving his input in selecting the new cabinet and formulating government policies.

If one were to listen to the members of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) named after the deposed prime minister, Nawaz Sharif lives in the hearts of the people. The new Prime Minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, declared in his speech after his election as leader of the House that Nawaz Sharif will become the premier again.

It was a message of defiance by a loyalist to the apex court and to the opponents of the powerful Sharif family. Abbasi also repeated the PML-N’s confidently articulated argument that it would redeem itself by going to the court of the people and winning the general election scheduled to be held next year.

However, the fact remains that the court of law found Nawaz Sharif guilty and punished him accordingly. The five judges unanimously decided that he wasn’t truthful and righteous under the terms of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution and was, therefore, unfit to remain the member of parliament.

Nawaz Sharif’s failure while filing his nomination papers for contesting the May 2013 general election to declare a salary that he allegedly drew from his son’s company led to his disqualification. From what we know till now, he hadn’t received any salary. The court and its Joint Investigation Team (JIT) apparently found no conclusive evidence of corruption against him. This was the reason the Supreme Court sent all charges of corruption against him and his family to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) to hold further investigation and get him convicted by an accountability court.

The prime minister’s disqualification triggered a debate on the necessity or otherwise of retaining the controversial Articles 62 and 63 in the Constitution. Questions were raised if any incumbent lawmaker can actually meet the requirements of these tough articles. Many politicians and civil society activists want the articles to be deleted or amended, but the Islamic parties, like the Jamaat-i-Islami threatened to resist any such move.

The big question mark though is whether the process of accountability initiated this time by the superior judiciary would continue and taken to its logical conclusion by making accountable all those named in the Panama Papers leaks as owners of offshore companies along with others accused of corruption.

If the standards of character highlighted by Articles 62 and 63 are too high and unrealistic to be met, there is no need to keep these statutes in the constitution. Or one may well ask that these should be applied to every holder of public office now that the democratically elected chief executive of the country has been dismissed for lying to the nation about his family’s wealth and financial dealings.

The extreme polarisation in politics meant that it has been difficult to hear objective opinions and sane voices. The supporters of every political party looked at things from a particular angle, depending on personal and partisan interest rather than national interests. As if this wasn’t enough, the imbalanced civil-military relations continued to haunt the political landscape and generate uncertainty.

Without naming the powerful military, PML-N leaders and supporters created the impression that it was behind the campaign to discredit and remove Nawaz Sharif from power. If this, indeed, was the case, it has been a job half done as Nawaz Sharif is still looming large over the political horizon, the Sharif family is running the federal government from behind the scene and directly controlling Pakistan’s most populous province, Punjab, and the PML-N has seen no defection and disunity.

There is, no doubt, the Supreme Court asserted itself again and sent a prime minister packing despite his unassailable majority in the parliament. One heard comments from seasoned Indian journalists and politicians, saying how impressed they were with the Supreme Court in Pakistan and pointing out that the Supreme Court in India would never be able to disqualify Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a similar situation.

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The judges of the Supreme Court and also the provincial high courts have felt empowered since the 2007 Lawyers’ Movement that got the then Chief Justice of Pakistan, Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, and about 55 other judges restored and weakened military ruler, General Pervez Musharraf, so much that he was eventually forced to step down. However, the apex court’s verdicts in cases of political and constitutional nature have understandably also generated controversies and brought into question the judges’ sense of judgment and preferences.

The most recent unanimous judgment disqualifying the Prime Minister has both been praised and criticised depending on one’s political loyalty. The critics have pointed out that the verdict was based on faulty grounds as it termed salary that hasn’t been received as receivable and counted it as an asset. Also, they have been arguing that the judgment was in violation of Pakistan’s tax laws. However, this is the viewpoint of those who came to grief because of the Supreme Court verdict.

There were certain positive aspects of the landmark judgment by the Supreme Court. Nawaz Sharif and his party accepted the verdict despite having serious reservations about it and took steps to promptly get it implemented. A review petition would be filed in the Supreme Court as part of the legal battle and this means the happenings inside the court would continue to impact the situation outside.

Nawaz Sharif and his two sons, Hussain and Hassan, daughter Maryam Safdar, son-in-law Captain (r) Mohammad Safdar and former finance minister Ishaq Dar, who is also related to the deposed prime minister, would also have to face references in the NAB and trial in the accountability court for the next several months. They would have to clear their name to save their reputation, political careers and businesses.

Another positive outcome was the orderly manner of the political transition in the wake of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification. All concerns expressed about an impending political instability engulfing Pakistan proved wrong. There was no major political crisis, the military didn’t try to fill the void and the democratic institutions continued to function and facilitate the transition from one prime minister to another.

The big question mark though is whether the process of accountability initiated this time by the superior judiciary would continue and taken to its logical conclusion by making accountable all those named in the Panama Papers leaks as owners of offshore companies along with others accused of corruption or if it was a one-time exercise targeting Nawaz Sharif and his family and bringing him down to size.

The people of Pakistan have always been supporting accountability campaigns and they would be disappointed if these drives were selective, instead of being across the board.

Whose accountability next?