A decision by Pakistan’s Supreme Court last week, to remove former prime minister Nawaz Sharif as head of the ruling party, must trigger further optimism for a nation where democracy is still taking root.
The ruling not only knocked out Sharif as leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), a party created in his name, but the verdict also presented a powerful ray of hope for rule of law to finally take shape.
In Pakistan’s 70-year history, the citizens have become split into two categories on matters of law: Those who are law abiding and those who not only trample upon the law, but consider it their right to do so. Such reckless behaviour has fuelled what has widely come to be known as Pakistan’s crisis of governance, whose ill effects have seeped into every-day life.
It is no secret that Sharif, since his ouster last July, following a Supreme Court verdict, has repeatedly questioned that ruling. For him, being forced out on a Supreme Court verdict was blatantly unfair and struck at the heart of Pakistan’s democratic evolution. Some of his closest supporters even joined hands to publicly claim that the former prime minister became a victim of a grand conspiracy, possibly aimed at weakening the country’s democratic fabric.
Yet, beyond such rhetoric lies the powerful reality of the need to finally play by the rules.
The case against the former prime minister was triggered following revelations of large-scale unaccounted offshore wealth belonging to three of his children, which formed part of the so-called ‘Panama leaks’ — a comprehensive set of documents that was leaked from the offices of a Panama-based law firm. The revelations finally blew the lid off the dark world of secrecy that shrouded the Panama-based offshore bank accounts of the rich and wealthy the world over. For years, critics had pointed towards safe havens such as Panama where banks have zealously guarded the identity of their clients and their sources of wealth, irrespective of where those assets came from.
The global fallout from this saga put many to shame and brought about the downfall of figures like the Icelandic prime minister at the time. But Sharif chose to distance himself from the controversy by arguing that the wealth in his children’s name was legitimately earned from his family’s offshore businesses.
The outcome of the case, following a long-drawn trial in the country’s apex court, finally saw Sharif’s departure as prime minister last year. For the politically uninitiated, there are two aspects to the case that are excessively troubling.
On the one hand, anecdotal evidence of the wealth of Sharif’s family has baffled many across Pakistan for years. This includes two luxurious apartments located along London’s prestigious Park Lane, where real estate is counted among the most expensive in the world. Exactly how Sharif and his family were able to assemble enough funds outside Pakistan to afford ownership of such a prized address still remains unknown. On the other hand, Sharif’s refusal to accept the verdict poses a continuing dilemma for present trends and future outlook of Pakistan’s democracy. On several occasions since his departure as prime minister, Sharif has questioned the verdict. This stubborn refusal to accept the verdict of Pakistan’s apex court is an act of outright defiance and a show of dishonour towards the country’s highest judicial authority. Clearly, instead of respecting the verdict, Sharif chose to fight back. For Pakistan, this was an unsustainable course. Without acceptance of the rule of law, no country can progress on the path of democracy and lay down a framework for progressive change.
In the coming months, Sharif is likely to intensify his attacks on the judiciary in a largely feeble attempt to come clean.
For more than four years since his election as Pakistan’s prime minister for the third time, evidence has been piling up against him and his government for a range of policy failures in matters that are central to the lives of ordinary Pakistanis. The PML-N continues to defend its grandiose policies such as new transportation projects and improvements and modernisation programmes for state-controlled infrastructure such as airports and hubs for high-speed train services. While billions are being spent from the state exchequer in pursuit of such pet projects of the former prime minister, ordinary citizens continue to suffer from an acute shortage of essential commodities, health care and quality education.
In a country where almost one-third of the population lives below the poverty line, citing cases of modernisation based mainly on infrastructure development must appear to those at the grass roots as heartless. And while such a disconnect may not be linked to Sharif’s present-day woes, the point remains that it still smacks of a leadership that has remained completely out of sync with the reality at the grass-roots level for far too long.
That said, its hardly surprising that Sharif continues to publicly attack Pakistan’s highest judicial forum. For him, such defiance may well seem like a road to an eventual political rehabilitation, but the writing on the wall is clear: Sharif’s rule over Pakistan has definitively ended.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.