IN a nation of some 200 million, I doubt if a handful could pinpoint Panama’s location. And yet, this tiny Central American state has dominated Pakistan’s political discourse for the last year to the point of tedium.
Finally, after nearly two months of hearings before a Supreme Court bench, the verdict is here. And, as I had predicted to friends a few weeks ago, it is a cop-out that has both sides declaring victory.
For me, the abiding image is of the Sharif brothers, Nawaz and Shahbaz, embracing and beaming at each other. In the PTI camp, we watched Imran Khan and senior party members pass sweetmeats around.
‘Panama’ will continue to resound on TV chat shows.
For the SC, the verdict gave the impression of balance and fairness, with something for both sides to cheer about. Imran Khan had a lot of praise for the two dissenting judges who declared the prime minister ineligible to rule because he didn’t meet the criteria of honesty and integrity laid down in the Constitution.
The ruling PML-N is gloating over a verdict that, for the time being, has let their leader off the hook. As far as the party is concerned, it has every chance of hanging on to power until the 2018 election. Here, according to opinion polls, it is most likely to win a majority. So who’s the real winner in the verdict?
When the Panama brouhaha began a year ago, I had suggested that the Sharif brothers were masters of kicking the can down the road, and would drag matters out indefinitely. Now, with a joint investigative team (JIT) being set up, expect more of the same.
Even though the SC has required the JIT to submit fortnightly progress reports, the fact remains that members of this committee will all be serving members of the civil and military bureaucracy. To expect them all to perform their tasks independently is a rather big ask.
Then there is the problem of the team having to obtain and verify information in different jurisdictions. Will they be able to force banks and government departments in Dubai and Qatar to hand over documents? And all this in two months? Forgive my scepticism, but having first-hand knowledge of the pace at which our bureaucracy works, I have some doubts.
No wonder that Imran Khan is demanding the PM’s resignation. He knows how difficult it will be to get a group of civil servants to report against a sitting PM. But he’s right in underlining Nawaz Sharif’s loss of moral authority to rule.
Irrespective of the legal rights and wrongs of the case, it is clear that the daily drip-drip-drip of corrosive evidence against Sharif and his family has done much to strip away the aura of decency he had tried to project. And his disqualification by the two dissenting judges on the bench has reinforced the impression of corrupt practices at the heart of the Sharif empire.
With supreme irony, Asif Zardari has also demanded Nawaz Sharif’s resignation, and asked if he would be taken to the local police station for questioning, or would the JIT go the PM House? The reference here was to his own vicious treatment over a decade of incarceration.
Indeed, the PPP has good reason to be aggrieved at what has often appeared to be its targeting by the judiciary, starting with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto’s judicial murder to the sacking of another elected PM, Yousuf Raza Gilani. In many other cases, the judiciary has displayed an apparent animus against the PPP.
And yet, despite demands for his resignation from the opposition, Nawaz Sharif isn’t going anywhere. He didn’t get to where he is by being sensitive to corruption charges. Throughout his political career, he has shown himself to be tough and opportunistic.
Imran Khan has given examples from other countries where leaders tainted by the Panama Papers have either provided full disclosure (David Cameron), or resigned (Iceland’s Sigmundur Gunnlaugsson). However, members of Putin’s and Bashar al-Assad’s inner circle have not even bothered denying the allegations against them contained in the leaks.
As we know, there is no tradition of resignations in Pakistan. Even in Israel, Bibi Netanyahu is mired in corruption charges, but is refusing to step down. But in Israel, the police are far more independent than they are in Pakistan, and have investigated similar charges against presidents and prime ministers before.
Whatever happens next, Panama is a name that will continue to resound on our TV chat shows for some time to come. But will the verdict reduce corruption? I doubt it. But it will force crooked politicians to be more careful about their bookkeeping.
A final factoid: the verdict triggered our stock exchange’s biggest bull run, with the index shooting up by 1,800 points in a single session. Do investors know something we don’t?
Published in Dawn, April 22nd, 2017