NAWAZ Sharif is handed another jail sentence and Asif Ali Zardari’s fate hangs in the balance after a damning indictment in a money-laundering investigation. Though foretold, the two events this week bring closer the decapitation of the leadership of the two major political parties that have dominated Pakistani politics over the decades.
Behind prison bars and banned from holding any public office, the three-time prime minister is already out of the political race, and now it is the turn of the former president. It may not be the first time we are witnessing the accountability roller coaster knocking down the top political leadership, but things seem more serious this time. The ordeal for the Sharifs is far from over with other members of the family too in the dock. Their dynastical legacy is now at stake.
Although having suffered incarceration for almost nine years before making it to the highest echelons of power, things are far more serious for Zardari this time. While we still have to wait for the legal process to conclude, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) report appears highly incriminating. The PPP leader is accused of running dubious financial and business networks through front men, worth billions of rupees.
The credibility of the ongoing accountability process itself is in doubt.
Surely, the phenomenal wealth allegedly accumulated through questionable means seems hard to defend. But there is also the question of whether these charges could be proved in a court of law. Some other PPP leaders, including one of Zardari’s sisters, are also under investigation for corruption and the misuse of power. The noose is tightening around another powerful political dynasty, which may have far-reaching political consequences.
A major problem is the credibility of the ongoing accountability process itself. There may be some strong evidence of misdeeds against the political leaders under investigation, but there are reasons to believe that it is a selective and politically motivated process. The ongoing media trial has also lent credence to allegations of a witch-hunt against political leaders as part of a plan to weaken the opposition parties.
Moreover, the diminishing public faith in our extremely flawed system of justice and investigation is another factor fuelling scepticism. The way the so-called accountability process has been used in the past as a tool to subdue opposition voices also makes the current drive questionable. What some analysts describe as the ‘judicialisation’ of Pakistani politics, backed by the security establishment, has made things worse.
What happens next is likely to redefine the political template. Indeed, neither the PPP nor the PML-N have the capacity or intention to take the battle to the streets against what they describe as a politically motivated accountability process and witch-hunt targeting their leaders. But they remain a very effective force inside parliament and could create serious problems for a rudderless government.
The decapitation is not likely to push these political parties out of the scene as we have evidenced in the past. They still have a strong popular base and the disqualification of the leadership may not lead to the fragmentation of these parties as being predicted by some elements in the government. There is a strong possibility of these parties evolving into more democratic structures. With the Sharif brothers having been restrained, the PML-N is already moving towards a collective leadership. The PPP may also be pushed towards this leadership model if such a situation arises.
While the crackdown on the leadership has brought both the opposition parties under pressure, the PTI government’s own lacklustre performance has given them some confidence. The government’s own rhetoric about corruption being the biggest problem faced by the country and its threat of ‘fixing’ the opposition have made the accountability extremely controversial and exposed the claim of NAB and other investigative agencies being autonomous. The latest development has forced the main opposition parties to come closer.
Having no clear policy direction has made an incompetent government more and more reliant on the security establishment that now seems to be the driving force behind it. The judicialisation of politics has also given the top judiciary unprecedented powers. With the judiciary getting increasingly involved in policy issues beyond its domain, there is a sense that the chief justice may appear more like the chief executive of the country, further distorting the power symmetry.
Such politicisation is of serious concern. It makes it more difficult for accountability to be seen as impartial. The formation of JITs and the inclusion in them of members of the intelligence agencies in cases related to political leaders have reinforced the perception of a selective process of accountability. For a fair trial and impartial investigations, this impression should be removed.
Sharif’s trial by a NAB court under the supervision of the Supreme Court has not set a good precedent for raising the public’s faith in the judicial process. The comments made by the court carry political connotations and have not helped to maintain the sanctity of the top judiciary. The reporting of the comments reinforces the impression of a media trial as alleged by the opposition. This trend must stop.
One such example is the reporting of the JIT investigations into the money-laundering case against Zardari. Why should the content of a confidential report to the Supreme Court be made public before the accused is charged? Such practices do not help the justice system. The restrictions on discussion on sub judice matters seem to have gone away a long time ago. That makes an accused a convict even before being indicted.
Consequently, the elected civilian government seems to have become a secondary partner in the existing power troika. There have been observations that a nexus between the military and the judiciary is propping up the government. This has also undermined the elected bodies especially parliament, but for how long can this situation continue when such formidable challenges are confronting the country? It is important to hold those in public office accountable. But it is equally important to make the process of doing so more transparent, impartial and without any political prejudice.
Published in Dawn, December 26th, 2018