IN a brief, emphatic and unanimous judgement, the Supreme Court has stripped Nawaz Sharif of the prime ministership, struck a blow for accountability and radically altered the political landscape. The full legal effects of the judgement will become clear in the days ahead and the specific reason given by the court for Mr Sharif’s disqualification from parliament will be intensely debated. But this much is clear: Mr Sharif left himself open to judicial sanction by submitting an incomplete statement of assets with his 2013 nomination papers. Perhaps the now former prime minister was trying to hide his chairmanship of the Dubai-based Capital FZE from electoral officers or perhaps it was in keeping with the usual lax attitude of candidates towards such filings, but a stern message has been sent across the country: declare everything fully and transparently or risk the ultimate sanction. Such a harsh interpretation could be a boon — if it is applied evenly and transparently. The Supreme Court has a heavy burden on its shoulders and an expectant country will await the fair and even-handed implementation of the new standard.

Politically, Mr Sharif and the PML-N have taken the honourable path and immediately accepted the court’s verdict, even if party leaders have expressed strong reservations about the judgement. Whatever the judicial fate of Mr Sharif, it has always been clear that the overall democratic stakes are greater than any individual’s political future — the focus needing to remain on keeping the democratic project moving forward. It is important, therefore, for the PML-N to quickly nominate a new prime minister and have the next prime minister elected by the National Assembly. Delay would not be in the PML-N’s interest and certainly not in the country’s. For a party that has a majority in parliament, an assembly of 342 representatives, finding a replacement prime minister should be a quick matter, giving the country an opportunity to move on from this damaging political episode. The PML-N ought to continue to act honourably and protect the overall democratic process.

For the PTI, a significant victory has been notched up. Whatever the disagreement with the tactics of the PTI, a political truth must be acknowledged: if it were not for the relentless campaign of Imran Khan and his party, the accountability of elected officials would not likely have been at the centre of the national political discourse. The Panama Papers case itself was almost single-handedly kept alive in legal and political circles by Mr Khan and while at times the PTI supremo has practised a destabilising kind of politics, his relentlessness has helped deliver an accountability blow that few would have imagined possible even months ago. From here, the aim of the PTI must be to widen the accountability project — to expand it to not just all elected officials but all institutions of the state, elected and unelected. Against the odds, Mr Khan and PTI have helped strike a blow for the cause of a cleaner and more transparent political process. The PTI and Mr Khan should demonstrate their commitment to that welcome goal by submitting themselves to the same rigorous standards of accountability that Mr Sharif has been held to.

Finally, in these hours after another major convulsion has ripped through the political landscape, thoughts must turn to political stability in a country where yet another elected prime minister has been ousted before the end of his term. It is possible to search for conspiracies or blame scapegoats for why the country is once again at a delicate moment in its political history. However, as the custodians of the democratic project, the current PML-N government ought to accept principal responsibility. Nawaz Sharif could have resigned and saved the country from another tumultuous political episode or he could have provided the money trail that the Supreme Court virtually beseeched the prime minister and his children to provide. Mr Sharif chose to do neither. Now, the PML-N and the Sharifs ought to recognise a new burden on their shoulders: help steer the country forward in a democratic path or risk an implosion of the democratic project. But if Mr Sharif continues to acquiesce in his judicially mandated political fate, other power centres should give the PML-N and all other mainstream political parties the space to determine a democratic way forward. Outside the strict confines of the law within which the Supreme Court delivered its judgement, there is political and institutional reality of power in the country. The democratic project must not be derailed under any circumstances.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2017

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