It has been more than a week since Nawaz Sharif stepped down as Prime Minister but the national and international debates over the political consequences continue to rage. Here, Hamza Siddiq challenges the view that the Supreme Court’s decision is a blow to Pakistan’s fragile democracy, arguing that it is in fact a milestone in the popular campaign for accountability.
On 28 July Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif stepped down after the Supreme Court disqualified him from office over corruption allegations. The ruling came after a lengthy inquiry into his family’s assets following the 2016 Panama leaks linking the Sharif’s children to offshore companies. The revelation that the Prime Minister had substantial investments stowed in offshore accounts in a country where 39 percent live below the poverty line drew widespread fury and spurred appetite for accountability. The verdict that followed a boisterous public movement for accountability has, however, plunged Pakistan into perilous uncertainty, raising concerns about Pakistan’s fragile democratic order.
The news of the disqualification has evoked mixed and heated reactions across the country, fuelling fears of further polarisation in a divided society. Some have hailed the decision to oust a sitting Prime Minister over corruption as a milestone in the struggle for democratic accountability. Others have condemned it as yet another blow for Pakistan’s fragile democracy. They argue that the decision could reverse the progress Pakistan has made. Looking at Pakistan’s complex political history, neither side is effortlessly convincing. However, a critical review of the facts and the socio-political context in which the case unfolded renders the former argument more credible. Disqualification from office over proven corruption is a step in the right direction for Pakistan’s so-called democracy. Moreover, the argument that the verdict is just another conspiracy of the notorious establishment against democratic process is misleading and serves to deflect attention from the real issues plaguing the political system.
In the past, democratic progress in Pakistan has been disrupted by an overbearing military through periodic coups. No Pakistani prime minister has ever completed a full five-year term as most have seen their regimes cut short by the powerful military or by judges. General Ayub Khan took power in 1958, and Zia-ul-Haq seized power with coup in 1977 that resulted in the judicial murder of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, a highly popular but controversial leader. More recently it was General Musharraf who ousted Nawaz Sharif with a coup in 1999. In 2012, then-prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani was removed from power over contempt of court charges. However, this account would be one-sided without mentioning the attack in 1997 on the Supreme Court orchestrated by the same Nawaz Sharif, who was serving his second term as Prime Minister at the time.
Following the historical pattern, there are those who have been quick to point fingers at the establishment as the invisible force behind the Supreme Court’s ruling. However, this case bears little resemblance, if at all, with the historical trajectory of coups. Any arguments emphasising military influence are therefore at best out-of-context and at worst exaggerated. The verdict is a culmination of months of legal proceedings initiated by the opposition leader Imran Khan. The Panama leaks were a global reality and certainly not the handiwork of Pakistani establishment. It was the Sharif family’s inability to satisfy the investigation team and the court through their wildly varying tales about their financial transactions that shaped the verdict, rather than a conspiracy.
A group of analysts and politicians, however, has exploited the establishment argument dismissing the changing political context and a growing public demand for accountability. This is not the first time the democracy card has been played by civilian politicians in defense of their wrongdoings. After a history tainted with democratic ousters, any disruption (even a demand for enhanced accountability) is conveniently labelled as threat to democratic progress. The implications of this argument are potentially as catastrophic as a military coup: all is forgiven and justified in the name of so-called democracy. The national desire for preserving civilian rule and fear of coup has allowed the elite to consolidate an extractive political system branded as democracy.
Any arguments for the preservation of status quo therefore signal tacit support for the abusive system we have cultivated guised as democracy. It is noteworthy that no civilian prime minister has completed his or her term, but is a five-year term really worth protecting at the expense of power abuse and embezzlement? Can a political system infused with patronage evolve into a free and accountable model merely with uninterrupted civilian tenures?
Democracy in its true form is, undoubtedly, the most desirable form of a political system. Amartya Sen, a Nobel-prize-winning economist draws attention to the universal and intrinsic value of democracy. He contends that democracy, besides allowing voting, also promotes protection of liberties and freedoms, respect for legal entitlements and freedom of speech. But by these standards, our political system is far from being democratic. The World Bank’s 2011 World Governance Indicators (WGIs) scores Pakistan poorly with ‘Voice and Accountability’ (conceptualised as the ability of citizens to participate in selecting their government, freedom of expression, freedom of association and the freedom of the media) declining since 1996. A voting exercise once every five years is understood as the key criteria for a system to be qualified as democratic, but in itself is not enough.
Since Pakistan’s inception, personal interests have taken precedence over national good both during military and fledgling democratic periods. The ruling groups have crippled laws and institutions of accountability for personal gain. It was the failure of accountability institutions such as the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to be able to conduct a fair investigation into the PM family’s wealth that gave opponents an opportunity to push the Supreme Court to look into the matter (JIT). In the first verdict where the Supreme Court ordered forming a Joint Investigation Team to probe the allegations, the justices categorically asserted that both NAB and FIA had been unsuccessful in playing their role effectively. This highlights the fundamental problem underlying our political system: the institutionalised system of checks and balances is subjugated to the ruling elite. Widespread patronage has destroyed public institutions at the expense of preserving vote banks. Our national carrier Pakistan International Airlines and Pakistan Steel Mills are a case in point. If the ruling politicians who claim to be ‘saviours’ of the democratic cause genuinely wanted democracy to consolidate, why have they shied away from desperately-needed electoral reform? Why have they failed to cement civilian effective and independent institutions of accountability? Can we also claim that the establishment is at play here?
Critics of the verdict naively stress that the removal of the Pakistani PM should have come through the voters rather than judges, bureaucrats and the military. Ideally that should be the case but with a scarred record of electoral fraud this option remains questionable. The 2013 general election sparked nationwide concerns over alleged rigging, leading to one of the largest sit-ins ever in Islamabad. The concept of political settlements in literature on politics in Pakistan can illuminate our understanding of power and the politics of accountability. Power is acquired and maintained through political settlements between landlords and industrialists; senior military officers, civil servants and the judiciary and Members of the National Assembly. These arrangements are maintained through the use of state institutions such as the police to generate rents, reward allies and persecute opponents. State institutions therefore, are intimately involved in the reproduction of elite privilege. Given this context, any hopes of accountability from within are slim.
From this perspective, it will not be an exaggeration to call this democratic model a sham. Here it might be insightful to analyse the voting patterns in Pakistan. Votes are not cast on morality or media narratives but on promises of mulazimats and on the orders and influence of local feudal classes. The term ‘mulazim’ includes favours such as posting friends and family on lucrative jobs primarily government or long-term jobs. In one clear example of fulfilment of such promises, both the PPP and the PML-N (the two main political parties) in their respective tenures, hired more than 3000 voters in the crumbling overstaffed Pakistan International Airlines (PIA). Amid deep-rooted patronage and a history of institutionalised rigging, can we expect voters to oust dishonest public office holders as critics of the verdict advocate?
While many analysts especially international media contend that the verdict will set a dangerous precedent for Pakistan, I see it as a milestone in the nation-wide movement for accountability. An ever stronger media and growing civilian space along with a relatively informed public has reduced the options for judicial or military coups in the future. The overarching lesson seems to be that the context matters. Any comparison to western democratic rules should be drawn in a way that reflects the realities and constraints of the Pakistani context. There are no western blueprints that we can adopt to achieve progress (Chinese success is a case in point).
Yet we must strive for achieving democratic freedoms. Efforts to foster accountability and rule of law are a good starting point. No one should be above the law whether it is a democratically elected leader or a military dictator. Those who understand democracy in real sense will therefore see the move as a step in the right direction.
You can read an alternative perspective on the implications of the Supreme Court decision for Pakistan’s democracy on South Asia @ LSE here.
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About the Author
Hamza Siddiq holds a Masters degree in Anthropology & Development from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Currently, he is a lecturer in International Development for the University of London International undergraduate programme in Lahore, Pakistan.