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Is democracy under threat?

It may take days or weeks for the three-member Supreme Court bench to decide the fate of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. But the long-drawn-out legal battle over the Panama Papers scandal has left a significant mark on democratic political evolution in the country. Moreover, it has also exposed the fault lines hampering the growth of a democratic polity.

Even as the ruling party and the opposition fight it out in and outside the courtroom and during TV talk shows, parliament has appeared completely redundant. Surely there would have been no need for the apex court to intervene had the lawmakers demonstrated some maturity in taking up the issue involving the leader of the house, and if the law-enforcement agencies were allowed to do their job independently outside the influence of the ruling elite.

A split ruling in the case compelled the judges to take the rather controversial decision of setting up a joint investigation team (JIT) to investigate the charges of financial corruption against the prime minister and his family. There is no precedent in our legal history of the SC resorting to such action against the highest political authority.

Many hailed it as a positive step, making accountable the untouchables. But for the loyalists, it was nothing short of a ‘global conspiracy’ against their beloved leader for ‘serving the nation selflessly’. ‘His government was ousted for conducting nuclear tests in the past and now he is being punished for initiating CPEC,’ is the most common line used by the cabinet ministers. Things have turned more bizarre as the court comes close to winding up the case.

The court action could be a chance for the political leadership to rationalise the accountability process.

Yet another conspiracy theory readily bought by some ‘liberal’ apologists is that the court action is a conspiracy to derail the democratic process in the country. The inference is that there exists an unholy alliance between the judges and the military. Some past examples are cited in support of the argument, conveniently ignoring the fact that it all happened under military rule. According to them, security agencies are still dictating to the judges. The mantra of ‘democracy under threat’ often comes in handy in defence of the status quo. Some even warn of tanks rolling on Constitution Avenue soon.

Indeed, the very composition of the JIT has sucked the military deeper into the fray. The inclusion of the members of the MI and ISI was bound to widen the cleavage in civil-military relations and should have been avoided. It may also be true that the participation of the two intelligence agencies could have provided further clout to the JIT’s investigations.

But the implication that the court took action at the behest of the military is to stretch the conspiracy theory too far. Those conspiracy theorists conveniently evade the question why the Panama leaks should not have led to the call for an inquiry into the scandal. The holder of the country’s highest elected office must be more accountable than anyone else. Sharif had ample opportunity to come clean on the issue in parliament, but the contradictions in his and his family’s statements ultimately landed them in this situation.

Sharif still had a chance to defend himself before the original five-member bench and then in the JIT’s presence. Now the case is back to a three-member bench — yet another lifeline thrown to him. Hence, the allegation of a witch-hunt targeting an all-powerful prime minister sounds preposterous. The victimhood card may get the House of Sharif some sympathy but will not help bail out the prime minister in a court of law.

Indeed, in the past accountability was used to victimise the political opposition. Military rulers used the slogan of accountability to overthrow elected civilian governments and force political leaders into submission. We have also seen how the NAB laws were used selectively by Gen Musharraf’s regime against his opponents. Many of those who faced serious corruption charges were taken in the cabinet after they pledged allegiance to the regime. Not surprisingly, accountability became a dirty word.

But the ongoing judicial proceedings against the prime minister and his family members named in the Panama Papers must not be equated with past cases of victimisation. In fact, the court action could provide an opportunity for the political leadership to rationalise the accountability process and strengthen investigation and law-enforcement agencies by giving them more autonomy. The democratic process will remain fragile without the rule of law. And it must start now with a sitting prime minister before the court of law.

Yet another common contention is that only civilian leaders are targeted while the generals remain outside the sphere of accountability. Surely one cannot dispute the argument that no one should be above the law. This question about the impunity enjoyed by former generals and other powerful groups is valid. But there is no substance in the argument that either all or none be held accountable for any misdeed.

Indeed, accountability is a process and must not be seen as a one-time action or part of a campaign selectively targeting the civilian political leadership. A major problem in this country is that the investigation agencies have been rendered completely ineffective, and fail to do their job freely. Same is the state of affairs in other government institutions.

These fault lines in our political and justice system became more pronounced during the Panama saga. Most of the cases against the Sharifs had been put on the back-burner; no investigation agency would dare touch them. The other political leaders too remain untouchable.

One is not sure that things will change after a sitting prime minister is brought to a court of law. But this unprecedented action could provide an opportunity to reform the system and strengthen the process of accountability. There is certainly no threat to the democratic process with the judges performing their role independently. In fact, democracy cannot work if the judiciary and other institutions fail to deliver.

Hussain, Zahid. Is democracy under threat?. Dawn, July 19, 2017.

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