After an enforced break, the Supreme Court is set to resume the Panama Papers hearings this week.

While the legal case has not taken full and final shape as yet, the political context of the hearings has become relatively clear: the opposition believes that damaging revelations against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family can be translated into electoral gains; the PML-N believes that the unprecedented financial scrutiny of a serving prime minister has given the government further legitimacy and exposed an opposition that wants to derail the government’s economic agenda.

To the extent that the government and opposition want to make their respective political cases to the public and are willing to accept the will of the people at the next election, the democratic system will emerge strengthened from this episode, irrespective of what the Supreme Court decides.

Yet, it is clear that strident politics alone is not a recipe for true democratic success. The challenge that remains for all sides — the government, the opposition and perhaps even the courts — is to produce stronger institutions from such episodes.

Specifically, whatever the fate of Mr Sharif and his family members, can the Panama Papers hearings become an institutional watershed in Pakistan, a moment that leads to greater long-term transparency in the democratic system and allows for the creation of a fair system of accountability for public representatives?

The virtual obsolescence of parliament and a political fight for survival and ascendancy by the government and the opposition respectively have meant that little attention has been paid to putting in place checks and balances for parliamentarians and public officials that are adequate for a new century of politics and governance.

At its core, the Panama Papers hearings have revealed sweeping new dimensions of possible corruption and conflicts of interest. The moving of money into and outside Pakistan; private business dealings with foreign heads of government; the potential for inherited wealth and power to further perpetuate a closed political system — a worthy democratic transition progressively identifies and addresses problems in the system.

Change will not be easy, but it is possible. Today, the PML-N seems as stubborn about the PTI as it was once about the PPP. But a decade of alternating governments culminating in the ouster of both the PML-N and PPP brought detente and eventually produced the Charter of Democracy. The PTI too has gained parliamentary experience since 2013 and been forced to address governing concerns in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

The two leading parties are not operating in a vacuum: a progressively more informed and modernising electorate wants change from the bad ways of the past. It is time to start delivering on those expectations.

Published in Dawn, February 13th, 2017

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