ISLAMABAD: To the relief of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, the Supreme Court’s Panamagate verdict did not disqualify Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. At the same time, however, the split ruling did not exonerate the premier and his family from the corruption charges against them.
In doing so, the verdict has provided enough meat to Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf chief Imran Khan and other opposition parties to further impugn the prime minister. The long-awaited ruling has enough material to give both opposition and government reason to rejoice.
For the opposition, the two most senior judges on the bench, including lead judge Asif Saeed Khosa, have found the Sharifs culpable in malfeasance. The remaining three did not by the first family’s defence either and directed them to appear in person for further probe.
For the ruling party, its prime minister is safe – for now.
Contrary to the expectations of most legal minds that the court might go for a judicial commission, the five-judge bench opted instead to direct the formation of a joint investigation team (JIT) which normally is constituted to investigate cases of grave criminal nature.
The court had already cast doubt on the impartiality of civilian corruption watchdogs like the National Accountability Bureau and the Federal Investigation Agency, and mentioned this explicitly in its judgment. For further probing allegations against Premier Nawaz and his family, it called for the involvement of the country’s military intelligence agencies.
This JIT will investigate the real ownership and money trail of the Sharif family’s properties in Mayfair, London, the source of funds for setting up the Hill Metals Establishment in Saudi Arabia, sources of funding for Flagship Investments and for FZE Dubai, which is owned by Premier Nawaz’s children. The JIT has also been empowered to question the prime minister directly or through authorised agents to probe whether he owns any other properties, assets and financial resources which he has not disclosed yet.
However, the daunting task, given the track record of such investigations into white color crimes in Pakistan, has made political observers and some leading political figures like former president Asif Ali Zardari pessimistic about the JIT investigation delivering any positive outcome for the opposition.
As per the method delineated in the judgment, the JIT will periodically submit its progress report to a special bench of the Supreme Court to be constituted by the chief justice of Pakistan. Once the JIT completes its probe in 60 days, it will submit its final report to a newly constituted apex court bench. The bench, if it finds it necessary, can summon all respondents – including the prime minister, his two sons, and any other person directly or indirectly connected to the case – for examination.
This judgment has established that the apex court is empowered to record evidence and conduct factual inquiries on its own in cases taken up under article 184(3) of the Constitution. As such, this special bench can order relevant authorities to file a reference before an accountability court if it finds cogent evidence against the accused. This tedious procedure may take some time, however.
In the meantime, the opposition will attempt to cash in on Thursday’s judgment politically and continue to build public pressure on the beleaguered government. The PTI, PPP and other opposition parties have already started demanding that Prime Minister Nawaz abdicate on moral grounds – a rare sight indeed in the country should the premier give in to pressure.
With little more than a year left before the next general elections, disparate opposition groups have yet to realign themselves to pose any daunting challenge for the PML-N.
Still, the divided opposition will not miss any opportunity to enervate the government which is already beset with several challenges, unabated prolonged summer power outrages being an immediate one. They expect reserved injunctions, like those on the Dawn Leaks probe and Orange Line case in Supreme Court, will provide them with more ammunition to use against the government.
As the stakes rise for the government and opposition, so will the pressure on both sides. Whether the incumbent government will be able to bear this with equanimity and complete its full five-year term remains to be seen. Known for inaugurating grandiose development projects, the PML-N will try its best to re-establish public trust through new populist measures.
Political statements aside, none of the mainstream political parties, especially PTI, are ready for snap polls – their claimed ultimate objective.
The much-hyped legislation to reform the country’s archaic election system is still pending before parliament. Many important proposals like the use of electronic voting machines, biometric verification of voters and enfranchisement of overseas Pakistanis are unlikely to be adopted in the proposed reforms package.
But unless these are included, PTI – which already doubts the impartiality of the Election Commission – will not be content with whatever reforms are adopted by parliament. The party has categorically stated that it will not go for polls unless the reforms process culminates.
It remains to be seen if pressure on the government in the wake of the incomplete Panama Leaks case will be temporary or if opposition parties succeed in using it as a decisive rally point in the next general elections.