THE prime minister may have a sense of the gathering political storm, yet there is no sign of him giving up. While indicting him, the apex court has also thrown him a lifeline that he is now holding on to. The joint investigation team (JIT), to be constituted for further probing the Panama Papers scandal, has already become controversial and has raised serious questions about the inquiry being conclusive.
Although both the main opposition parties — the PTI and the PPP — are united in demanding that the prime minister step down, there is no mass swell of support for the call. Anyway, Pakistan is not South Korea or Iceland where millions of people come out on the streets to force leaders implicated in financial wrongdoing to resign. That may have given the wily leader the hope that he can stick it out.
There is, indeed, a question of moral legitimacy following the damning court ruling. But when has morality been an issue in the Pakistani political culture? Politics in this country is all about patronage and the Sharifs are past masters in this field. Hence the country’s most powerful political dynasty does not seem too worried by the opposition campaign and the continuing legal battle.
Indeed, the court decision to institute a JIT has meant a huge sense of relief for Sharif. The motley commission of various civilian investigation organisations and military intelligence agencies is mandated to conclude its probe into the financial scandal spanning two decades and involving three generations of Sharif family in just 60 days. Surely it is a Herculean task to probe such a complex financial scandal given that it also requires access to information in a foreign land.
Options are becoming limited as the political stand-off between the opposition and government worsens.
Interestingly, the JIT comprises the representatives of the same institutions that have been castigated by the court for being ineffective and compromised. Imagine lower-ranking officials interrogating a sitting prime minister and his children. The supervision of the Supreme Court may give the commission of inquiry more teeth, but it cannot change the bitter reality of Pakistan’s power culture.
It seems the judges have simply followed the prevalent ritual of forming JITs to investigate cases ranging from crime to politics. Dozens of such commissions comprising civil and military agencies have been instituted over the past few years in different parts of the country. Most of their reports are consigned to official files, never to be implemented. One is not sure whether the Panamagate JIT report will meet a different fate.
What has made the proposed JIT more controversial is the inclusion of the military spy agencies in a politically sensitive investigation. Not only are these intelligence agencies not trained to probe financial corruption cases, their involvement has already become a serious political issue. The judges may have their own reasons to seek the help of these agencies, but it is hard to comprehend the rationale behind the decision.
The statement issued this week by the army leadership that it would play its “due role” in the JIT probe in a legal and transparent manner clearly indicates that the military has already been sucked into the power game swirling around the Panama scandal. Not surprisingly, this declaration by top army commanders has led to raised eyebrows. Also, the military has reacted strongly to the remarks made by PPP leader Senator Aitzaz Ahsan questioning the impartiality of the ISI chief.
Such controversies are certainly not good for the country’s premier security agency. It is obvious that the growing political polarisation has brought the military leadership under immense pressure. There is a danger that the military could get more deeply involved in the crisis if the ongoing political confrontation becomes more serious.
Every political crisis has consequences for the civil-military balance of power. A weakening of civilian authority invariably leads to the military gaining more space. We have seen this happening in the past and there are already some signs of the generals getting more assertive. Not a good omen for the democratic political process.
As the political stand-off between the opposition and the government gets more serious, options for the two sides are becoming limited. It may be true that a fractured opposition cannot force the prime minister to quit through mass agitation. But it can still create huge difficulties for the Sharif government.
It is not clear how much public support the PTI would be able to mobilise for its anti-government campaign starting at the end of the week. But there are strong apprehensions in government about the main opposition parties coming together on a single-point agenda calling for the prime minister’s resignation. Putting aside their differences, the PPP and the PTI have taken a joint anti-Sharif stand in parliament. It is certainly not a happy situation for the federal government, however confident it may appear.
Meanwhile, the Sindh and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa assemblies have demanded the prime minister step down. Sharif’s supporters may dismiss these calls from the opposition-dominated provincial legislatures as non-consequential, but it has certainly increased the political and moral pressure on the prime minister. It is a complete reversal of the situation when much of the opposition pledged support to the federal government during the Imran-Qadri siege of Islamabad some years ago. That bailed Sharif out of an extremely serious political crisis that threatened his relatively new government.
Perhaps it is true that the prime minister may not be facing an imminent threat to his position, either through the court or any opposition-led mass movement. Yet the confidence among Sharif’s supporters may be misplaced given the political uncertainty triggered by the divided ruling. Sharif can hang on because of his party’s domination in the National Assembly and its power base in Punjab. But the very perception of him being ‘damaged goods’ does not portend well for the ruling party or the family dynasty as the country approaches the next general elections. The onus is on the prime minister to save the system and secure his party’s chances of returning to power in the next elections. The choice is his.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 26th, 2017