Pakistan’s Panama paradox

D Suba Chandran | Updated on January 20, 2018 Published on May 26, 2016

It’s not about the scam, but about how to topple the government by fixing accountability and fixing the Sharif family

The Panama Papers’ revelations of offshore accounts of Pakistanis have created a political storm in the country.

While the issue did hog the limelight in the media in other countries, the debate then moved on. In Pakistan, however, there has been a political deadlock since April — both inside and outside the parliament. There has been a media trial and controversy over the terms of reference (ToR) to appoint a judicial commission to investigate the matter.

Significantly, more than using the expose to demand accountability, there seems to be an attempt to dislodge the Sharif government, or at least the Sharifs (the prime minister and his family).

Though the political parties have agreed to set up a judicial commission, they seem to be divided over the ToR, with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf chairman Imran Khan looking to dislodge Sharif and himself becoming prime minister. The military also seems to be playing its cards close to its chest.

Is Pakistan heading towards another political showdown as happened in 2014?

Déjà vu

For Pakistani media and the general public, it is just another issue. As it happened in many other countries, it did create a storm for a while, but the peopleseem willing to move on. ‘Everyone is corrupt, so what is new in the Panama exposé’ seems to be the general attitude.

Scandals, scams and controversies — the public in Pakistan has been witnessing these one after the other and for them it is just another form of entertainment. There are far more serious economic and security issues to consider. But not for the political parties.

Especially Imran Khan and his PTI. For the last few weeks, the entire opposition and the Pakistan Muslim League (N) was fighting both inside the parliament and outside about what needs to be done.

In principle, all political parties, including the PML-N, have agreed to a judicial commission to investigate the names listed in the Panama Papers. Though Nawaz Sharif was initially reluctant, this has become acceptable to him now.

But the primary differences on the judicial commission are related to what should be the terms of reference. While the opposition parties are united in pursuing a judicial investigation into the leaks, there seems to be a difference primarily between the PTI and other opposition political parties.

The PTI wants that Nawaz Sharif should first resign. Other parties such as the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), the Awami National Party (ANP) and the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam group, PML-Q) want the investigation to come first.

A great opportunity

For the PTI and Imran Khan, this is a political opportunity to dislodge not only Nawaz Sharif, but his entire family from politics.

Since Sharif’s family members, including his children, are named in the Panama leaks, Imran Khan wants to use this and politically banish the entire family.

He understands that not only Nawaz Sharif, but his brother (who is now the chief minister of Punjab) and his daughter Mariam Sharif (who is rising fast within the PML-N) are a political threat to him and his party.

Even if Nawaz is convicted, his dynasty could carry on with the PML-N, which will remain the greatest political threat to Imran’s PTI.

And that is why he wants to take the issue to the road, as he did with another issue a few years ago on another issue. Besides this, there is debate over whether the commission should investigate across the board, or start with the prime minister and his family first.

Equally controversial is the point that “the burden of proof in all matters shall be entirely on the respondent (Nawaz Sharif) and his family to prove their innocence”. Both are clearly political considerations.

Who will conduct the inquiry has generated another controversy, which has not yet been settled. While the government was initially keen to set up a commission under the existing legal framework within Pakistan, the opposition demanded a “new judicial commission” constituted by a special act of parliament and headed by the chief justice of the Supreme Court.


Even Justice Jamali, chief justice of Pakistan was quoted to have observed: “Formation of Commission of Inquiry under the Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Act 1956 (Act VI of 1956), looking to its limited scope, will result in the constitution of a toothless Commission, which will serve no useful purpose, except giving bad name to it.”

The fact that the opposition parties are demanding a judicial commission promulgated by parliament and the CJP has remarked on the Pakistan Commission of Inquiry Act 1956 also highlight the nature of the governance process and the level of trust in state-led commissions.

Where does the military establishment figure in all this? Gen Raheel Sharif took some unexpected measures leading to the sacking of a few military officials including a lieutenant-general and a major-general involved in the Panama exposé. It gave huge publicity to Raheel Sharif and the military establishment, forcing the general public to demand a similar process of accountability from the political establishment.

Gen Sharif also talked about an “across the board accountability” which was considered as a measured threat to Nawaz Sharif. The former talked about a speedy resolution of the crisis when the ruling party and the opposition locked horns on the issue. However, it is not clear if the military wants to step in, on the back of this crisis. At least, not now.

Hardly clean

Perhaps, it is Imran Khan and his PTI which wants to bring the military in, and use it as an opportunity to dethrone the PML-N.

Given the fact that Imran’s name also figures in the Panama list, it is unlikely he would have a clean enough image to help him to win the elections if the present parliament is dismissed.

His strategy would be to create a political deadlock, paralyse Pakistan and bring the military in, so that he could become prime minister.

The issue seems not to be how leaders ranging from the political to the scientific establishment engaged in money-laundering, tax-avoiding and tax-evading.

Rather, it seems to be how to exploit it politically to upset the existing regime.

The writer is a professor at the National Institute of Advanced Studies, Indian Institute of Science Campus, Bengaluru

Published on May 26, 2016
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