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Accountability or politics?

May 06, 2016


IMMEDIATE and emphatic agreement was always unlikely — the PML-N and the combined opposition were expected to bargain hard over the scope of the judicial commission. But already the sense of purpose is eroding and the focus is slipping on both sides.

What the Panama Papers should principally lead to is fairly clear: serious and meaningful accountability of the country’s elected representatives.

What the Panama Papers appears to be becoming, however, is a political tussle between a government that wants to obfuscate and an opposition that appears unsure of its belief in across-the-board accountability.

Consider the PML-N’s response to the opposition-proposed terms of reference for a judicial commission that the Supreme Court is yet to indicate it is willing to create.

The PML-N is arguing that the commission should not put Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family front and centre because accountability should be about equal treatment, and everyone named, and to be named, in the Panama Papers should be probed simultaneously.

Effectively, however, the PML-N is trying to create a double standard: Mr Sharif should have all the superior powers and prerogatives that his office bestows on him, but be treated like the average citizen when it comes to suspicions of misconduct.

So, if the prime minister wants, he can twice use the platform of an address to the nation to respond to the Panama Papers — a privilege available to no one else — but for purposes of actual accountability, Mr Sharif and his family should not become the central figures. That is preposterous.

The quality and credibility of democracy is directly and disproportionately affected by the credibility and standing of the prime minister.

A prime minister should not hide behind technicalities and legal minutiae — it is not just his person, but the office itself that is affected by the choices the prime minister makes. The PML-N and Mr Sharif appear to be in denial of some rather basic democratic principles.

Yet, where the PML-N is content to play politics, so too, unhappily, is the opposition. It is an open secret that leading figures of the opposition would struggle to answer the very questions that the opposition wants a judicial commission to put to the prime minister and his family.

A cursory comparison of the asset declarations of elected representatives over the years with the lifestyle they openly live suggests that the vast majority of them have not fully declared their true income and wealth.

By focusing relentlessly on Mr Sharif, then, many in the opposition will be hoping to avoid similar scrutiny eventually.

If discrepancies in the prime minister’s record are proved, his personal resignation will be demanded or early elections will become inevitable. That could be enough to distract from the real goal of accountability for all. Politics, as ever, appears to be trumping the will to improve the democratic system.

Published in Dawn, May 6th, 2016