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Constitutional limits

October 24, 2017

IT has become the theme of Nawaz Sharif, Maryam Nawaz and their supporters’ politics: institutions must remain within their constitutional limits. While presumably for political reasons the targets of their censure are not explicitly mentioned, the criticism appears to be directed at the superior judiciary and the military establishment. Speaking in Lahore yesterday, Ms Nawaz once again spoke of the urgent democratic need for all institutions to stay within their constitutional limits. Certainly, the chequered political history of this country is largely a result of institutions straying outside their constitutional remit; it is also highly likely that it is past anti-democratic interventions that have prevented the country from becoming a stable, people-oriented democracy. Indeed, with unnecessary comments emanating from certain institutional quarters recently, it appears that all institutions do need to be reminded of their duty to protect and uphold the Constitution, which is fundamentally and inalterably democratic in nature.

More uncomfortable, though, for Mr Sharif, his daughter and their supporters is another question: what role have they played in allowing the democratic order in the country to slip towards the state of uncertainty that it is in today? At every stage of the Panama Papers saga, the Sharif family and the PML-N have had an opportunity to find a fair and just solution either through parliament or the superior judiciary. For months after the Panama Papers were revealed to the world last year, the Sharif family and the PML-N resisted the formation of a parliamentary commission to investigate the issue. As prime minister, it was only right — from the very democratic perspective that the Sharif family frequently insists it cares about — that Mr Sharif be investigated first. Later, for many months and across dozens of hearings, the Sharif family appeared either unable or unwilling to respond to specific questions about the history of the family’s businesses and the wealth it had amassed. Surely, democratic, constitutional limits ought to be illuminated by the democratic spirit of the people’s elected representatives themselves.

Worryingly, the partial blame that all sides must bear for the current political impasse and governmental gridlock has not led to introspection by any side. Instead, the blame game appears to be dangerously escalating. With Mr Sharif set to return to Pakistan, the political tension is almost certain to be ratcheted up further with the opposition likely to target him with greater vigour than ever. The Sharif family strategy of going through the motions of defending themselves in the accountability court while verbally attacking institutions outside the court is a recipe for further instability. A danger is that the very institutions that the Sharifs are urging to remain within constitutional limits may be tempted to respond to the allegations against them. Cooler heads must prevail on all sides.

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2017