NAWAZ Sharif’s much-awaited speech in the National Assembly was as unconvincing as his two previous addresses to the nation. It was the same detail of family business and tale of persecution. There was a hint of defiance but overall it lacked in confidence. The prime minister looked under tremendous pressure as he tried to respond to some of the questions that have been posed by the opposition about the source of his family’s enormous offshore wealth.
There was still no plausible account of the money trail leading to the upmarket Mayfair properties in London that his family owns. In fact, the speech has raised more questions than it has answered. Sharif’s tax returns over the last two decades and the story of the hard work and business acumen that went into the making of the family business empire failed to impress the opposition that is going for the jugular.
What, perhaps, salvaged the day for the beleaguered prime minister was the opposition’s irresponsible decision to walk out instead of responding to his speech in the house. They chose to take the battle outside parliament and to TV talk shows, making a public spectacle of a serious political issue.
It is difficult to comprehend the logic behind this step given that it was the demand of the opposition itself that had forced Sharif to take his case to parliament. While the government looked nervous fighting a desperate battle, the opposition too did not come out looking good. It was a miserable show of political gamesmanship that has further deepened the political crisis unleashed by the Panama leaks.
There seems to be no end to the deadlock after the opposition has rejected the prime minister’s proposal to form a joint parliamentary committee to devise a mutually agreed accountability mechanism. Many contend the offer came too late and has become irrelevant after the chief justice declined the government’s request to form a judicial commission to probe the allegations of corruption against those named in the Panama leaks. What is next for Sharif? No one seems to have a clear answer to the question.
Political gamesmanship in the National Assembly has further deepened the political crisis.
It did not come as a surprise when Chief Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali turned down the government’s request to head what he described as a “toothless” judicial commission with no clear parameters of investigation. He wants parliament to pass new legislation to make such a commission more effective.
It was obvious that the government had deliberately kept the Terms of Reference (ToR) wide and complex so as to take away the focus from the Sharif family’s offshore wealth. The main objective was to prolong the investigation without any conclusion in order to defuse the crisis. But it was not to happen. The chief justice rightly pointed out that such investigation would only muddy the image of the apex court.
Such a blunt and candid response from the chief justice who is due to retire later this year has further limited Sharif’s options. That perhaps had compelled him to seek the opposition’s support to amend the ToR. But there is still no indication of the government being interested in new legislation to make the proposed judicial commission more effective as suggested by the chief justice.
It is not just the government that has been badly bruised in the Panama leaks saga: many top opposition leaders have also been muddied by the scandal, their high moral ground severely compromised. The latest disclosure about his offshore company has also landed Imran Khan in a political maelstrom and provided the government with an effective whip with which to beat its main tormentor.
There may not be any wrongdoing involved but the very fact that the PTI leader failed to declare it while bashing others for owning offshore companies exposed him to the allegation of being a hypocrite. He is surely finding it hard to rationalise his decision not to disclose his own offshore investment. With all the faces blackened in the fracas, it is difficult for the public to decide who is more dishonest.
It is quite interesting that the PPP has so far remained unblemished in the current offshore saga. It is not that its leaders are clean or have not been mentioned in the Panama Papers, but neither the government nor the PTI — for different reasons — want to target it. While being in the alliance has saved the party from any attack from the PTI, the government does not want to take on its former ‘friendly opposition’ as Sharif battles it out with his main challenger.
It is, however, not clear how long the PPP would stick to the anti-government alliance with no clear political strategy. For many old stalwarts, the current hard-line stance is necessary to keep the party alive and stop defections to the PTI in Punjab. But this policy is also not without risk, specifically the risk of playing second fiddle to the PTI that wants to take the battle to the bitter end.
With the stand-off against the opposition becoming more serious, Nawaz Sharif is also feeling increasing heat from the military that is fast assuming the role of arbiter. The tension has been mounting since the army chief Gen Raheel Sharif made a rare public statement calling for across-the-board accountability. The government saw it as a warning. Rumours about the growing civil and military divide gained further currency with a month-long gap in what had become almost a daily interaction between the two Sharifs.
The two finally met last week but it did not bring an end to the rumours. A deliberate leak of part of what is supposed to be a highly confidential one-on-one meeting, and information conveyed later by sources that the general had urged the prime minister during the meeting to urgently resolve the crisis, has further vitiated the atmosphere.
With no resolution of the crisis in sight, there are fewer options now left for the prime minister. His defence in parliament seems to have further compounded his predicament. One is not sure how he can break the siege.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, May 18th, 2016