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Ex-PM’s return: the right decision

September 26, 2017

RUMOUR and speculation, fuelled in part by contradictory messages from the PML-N itself, have been put to rest for now with Nawaz Sharif’s return to Pakistan. Today, according to Mr Sharif’s spokesperson, the disqualified former prime minister will appear in an accountability court inquiring into allegations of corruption against the Sharif family. Also to appear, after several weeks outside the country, is Finance Minister Ishaq Dar. The PML-N leadership is doing the right thing. Controversial as Mr Sharif’s ouster from the prime ministership has been, and unusual as it may be for the Supreme Court to monitor trial court proceedings, the allegations against the Sharif family are serious and the defence offered so far has been inadequate. A year and a half since the Panama Papers were revealed and almost a year since formal proceedings, ultimately leading to Mr Sharif’s disqualification, began in the apex court, the public is no closer to knowing the size of the Sharif fortune or how it has been accumulated over the decades.

In a modern democratic polity, elected representatives must be able to demonstrate a standard of conduct that is not only lawful but better than what is expected of the average citizen. It is a small price to pay for the high honour of exercising power on behalf of the people. In practical terms, for the Sharif family that means facing the accountability trials and acquitting themselves both in the court of law and public opinion. As a first step, it is necessary for Mr Sharif to be in the country and attend accountability court hearings as required by the law. His return to Pakistan is also an encouraging contrast to others who have fled the country on some pretext or the other and have, from their base abroad, tried to destabilise politics in the country. Former military dictator Pervez Musharraf is among the individuals who continue to consider themselves above the law.

What the PML-N needs to quickly clarify is what official role Mr Sharif will have in the party while he is still facing corruption proceedings. Tweaking the law via parliament to allow Mr Sharif to return as head of the PML-N was inadvisable. As has been demonstrated in the past, laws introduced to specifically damage or help certain individuals undermine the rule of law rather than promote it. Former prime minister Sharif should clarify his intentions publicly to the nation and remove the uncertainty that is hanging over the government and the PML-N. Perhaps Mr Sharif should recognise that since his ouster in late July, the government has been able to function relatively smoothly and that the principal tension in the PML-N is between his side of the family and that of his brother. Now is not the time for unnecessary defiance.

Published in Dawn, September 26th, 2017