Whatever the law may permit, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif must do the right thing by democracy and step aside, at least temporarily.

The JIT report submitted to the Supreme Court has now been pored over by experts, politicians and citizens alike. It is not a perfect report and the PML-N has already raised some important objections that will eventually have to be addressed by the court.

But the JIT report has laid out a number of very serious and specific allegations against Prime Minister Sharif and his children. Simply, no democratic order ought to have a prime minister operating under such a dark cloud of suspicion.

The PML-N may urge Mr Sharif to stay in office and Mr Sharif may be tempted to hunker down and fight, but the toll on democracy would be too great. The prime minister has a clear alternative: step aside, fight whatever charges are brought against him or his children in court and, if he is eventually cleared of the charges, he can seek a return to office as the law permits.

To be sure, stepping aside now would not be an admission of guilt. It would, in fact, be a necessary sacrifice for the protection and strengthening of the democratic order. The country does not need and cannot afford the distraction of an incumbent prime minister fighting corruption charges in the courts.

Moreover, with the JIT report now public, the principal PML-N allegation that the Panama Papers investigation is nothing more than a witch-hunt stands significantly diminished. Anti-democratic forces may exist in the country and they may wish Mr Sharif ill, but none of that prevented Mr Sharif and his family from providing evidence to the JIT that would corroborate the family’s claims.

The JIT conducted its entire investigation while the political stakes were crystal clear to the country and to the Sharifs themselves. Surely, the Sharif family should have gone the extra mile to provide evidence and explanations to the satisfaction of a reasonable investigation. As the JIT report makes clear, the Sharifs have not done so.

The other option would be for Mr Sharif to call a snap election. If Mr Sharif’s case is sent to the National Accountability Bureau, the presence of a caretaker government would dispel concerns of a manipulated process, NAB being prone to intense interference by the executive.

A fair but expedited accountability process would allow Mr Sharif to contest the next election without a cloud of suspicion hanging over him and his family, assuming a NAB process clears the family. Whichever option Mr Sharif chooses, it should be clear that the status quo is not an option. A prime minister preoccupied with fighting corruption charges is a prime minister no democratic polity deserves.

Mr Sharif may have his doubts about the fairness of the system, but the system has doubts about him. The system must prevail over the personal.

Published in Dawn, July 12th, 2017

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