Friday’s landmark verdict by Pakistan’s Supreme Court, which ruled that a disqualified politician will remain blocked for life from contesting for political office, presented a breath of fresh air for the South Asian country. Though the verdict removed a grey area in a constitutional provision, its consequences will be felt across Pakistan for years to come.
For too long, Pakistan’s high and mighty including the country’s ruling politicians have conveniently flouted the law to their advantage. To cite a recent example, the government’s announced one time amnesty for Pakistanis with illicit money parked abroad, to repatriate their assets back home upon the payment of a modest fee, is clearly a case in point. The amnesty offers the latest of the many windows extended to affluent Pakistanis with shady and substantial wealth. Yet, so far, there has been little evidence of such previous windows of opportunities having ever shown impressive results in the interest of Pakistan.
Rather than helping tackle the challenge of Pakistan’s widespread black economy, such amnesties notwithstanding, anecdotal evidence suggests that the fabric of the black economy has only grown further. Such examples amply demonstrate Pakistan’s failure in enforcing the rule of law as an essential tool of nation-building.
In a sorry reflection on the aftermath of Friday’s verdict, the case of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was immediately highlighted. Friday’s outcome in fact was the result of a case flowing from his own dismissal not too long ago.
Sharif was disqualified and forced out of office in July 2017, following a Supreme Court trial, which examined large-scale offshore wealth belonging to his children, notably including luxury apartments in London, in one of the world’s most expensive neighbourhoods.
A pro-Sharif government minister described Friday’s verdict as a “joke” while some of his most loyal supporters promised to redouble their campaign for his political rehabilitation. Yet, in a series of emotional outbursts, none of Sharif’s supporters demonstrated even a remote appreciation of the very centrality of the rule of law to the future of a nation.
Fundamentally, big politicians like Sharif must understand that a consistent weakening of the legal structure especially surrounding cases of ruling politicians, will inevitably return to haunt them. Indeed, no ruling structure can hold on to the levers of authority unless backed by a writ of the state.
And that writ will remain meaningless unless supported by a legal and an administrative framework to translate the government’s decisions into action. Such a structure eventually will also remain unstable unless other essential tools of authority — notably the parliament, the judicial system and other institutions — provide a supporting role.
In Sharif’s case, he has clamoured hard against the top judiciary since his dismissal in 2017, to cast doubts on the judicial process, which forced him out of power. Clearly, he has thrown himself up against two closely related challenges. Openly clashing with a judicial institution — in this case Pakistan’s Supreme Court — leaves little space for the former prime minister to make a case for an eventual comeback.
For instance, Sharif appears to have devoted little time to working towards stitching together a broader political coalition ahead of the next elections. On the contrary, his confrontational style of politics has apparently created more discord between his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), and other key political players just at a time when reconciliation should have been more beneficial to Sharif.
On the other hand, parts of the PML-N government that remains in place even today in spite of Sharif’s departure, appear single-mindedly obsessed with the case of the former prime minister. Rather than evolve a clear strategy aimed at winning the hearts and minds of Pakistanis, Sharif’s cronies appear to believe that his case remains the most pressing issue for ordinary Pakistanis. The stark reality, however, remains that nothing could be further from the truth.
Since Sharif’s election as prime minister in 2013, the PML-N has squarely kept focus on one set of controversial policies after another with little relevance to the challenges surrounding Pakistanis at the grass roots. In a country where pressing human needs frequently exhibit themselves in the shape of poorly-run systems of health care or pathetically performing structures of education, Sharif and the PML-N are widely seen as an uncaring lot.
A detailed documentary on a Pakistani private TV channel recently presented a glaring example of the disconnect between the PML-N and the grass roots, when it showed evidence of excessive water shortages in central Pakistan, not too far from where a modern bus system was established.
The contradictions highlighted by such a background only suggest that Sharif’s appeal as a populist leader may well be limited when Pakistan heads to parliamentary elections later this year. And his supporters who promised on Friday to step up their campaign for Sharif’s eventual rehabilitation may well stand to be disappointed when Pakistan goes to polls later this year.
As for Sharif, he needs to review his government’s record since 2013 and its disconnect with the people of Pakistan.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.