There is a saying that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. In 2016 millions across the world found out the truth of this statement when ICIJ leaked the Panama Papers, a treasure trove of 11.5 million secret documents that detailed exactly how politicians, businessmen and other elites exploit their positions to hide illegitimate wealth through the use of offshore companies. While the disclosure of these papers caused outrage and investigations in the rest of the world, in Pakistan they caused barely a simmer. After all, for us the fact that politicians are corrupt is about as revealing as knowing that the sun will rise in the morning.
However, trouble began when the papers revealed that both the in-laws and children of the present Prime Minister, Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif, were connected to offshore companies. The opposition, already disgruntled with the Prime Minister due to a range of issues, jumped on this connection in order to demand an investigation. PTI chief Imran Khan went even further and reiterated his often heard demand for the Prime Minister to step down. Facing the threat of another series of demonstrations in Islamabad the Supreme Court finally decided to hear the case (it had declined from hearing earlier petitions by the opposition). After numerous hearings, the court decided that while there was not enough evidence to disqualify the PM from office the issue was certainly significant enough to require an additional probe. For that a JIT (Joint Investigation Team) was formed consisting of members from the intelligence agencies, State Bank and other relevant institutions. The team began its work on May 6, 2017 and has till date received testimonies from numerous persons (including the Prime Minister and his sons) connected to the case. By all accounts the investigation is proceeding vigorously and according to some analysts is going badly for the PM.
Upon the issue of the case (or Panamagate as it has been often dubbed in the media) the public in Pakistan is deeply divided. On one hand proponents say that the case is an example of holding the powerful accountable for their actions and of ensuring a change in a system where corruption has become a norm. On the other hand, opponents of the investigation state that the case is nothing more than another attempt by the establishment as well as some political parties to topple the democratically elected government and to return Pakistan to a state where the establishment holds major sway over all decisions. Opponents also point out that many of the people and political parties currently pushing for an investigation into the PM’s financial assets have corruption allegations or cases placed against them (as one Twitter user remarked for the PPP to support anti-corruption efforts would be akin to an arsonist teaching the virtues of becoming a firefighter).
Both sides of the argument have merit. It cannot be denied that corruption is a highly destructive problem in our society allowing the rich and powerful to amass vast amounts of illegal wealth. Nor can it be disputed that corruption is widespread (a 2016 transparency index put Pakistan in the 30 most corrupt states on the globe) and leads to a host of other problems such as poverty, crime, income inequality as well as a weakening of state institutions. In short, corruption is a major problem that needs to be handled if the country is to move on the road to prosperity.
On the other side of the coin is the fact that political parties along with the establishment have often used the corruption card in the past as a justification for disposing democratically elected governments that were proving too authoritative. In fact a short look at history will confirm that almost every military rule that Pakistan has gone through has begun with some sort of claim of fraud or misconduct. The 1958 coup was the first one to occur in Pakistan. In it Major General Iskander Mirza dismissed the government of Prime Minister Feroz Khan Noon on charges of inefficacy and corruption. Ironically Mirza was himself dismissed soon after by his own chief Chief Martial Law Administrator Ayub Khan who then appointed himself president.
The next military coup to occur was in 1977 when General Zia-ul-Haq used the accusation of vote rigging and murder to overthrow the elected government of Prime Minister Bhutto. Bhutto was then arrested, put on trial and eventually hanged paving the way for Zia to begin his troubled rule of eleven long years. The last coup to occur in Pakistan was in 1999 when General Pervez Musharraf overthrew the Nawaz-led government of PML-N on charges of corruption, terrorism, and money laundering. Musharraf also claimed that Sharif tried to get him kidnapped by landing his plane in India. Looking at this long and disturbing timeline it is not difficult to conclude why many critics of the investigation see the case against the government as nothing more than a prelude to another period of dictatorship.
Despite the deep divide that has sprung up between the proponents and opponents of the investigations, both of them agree that the case should not end up harming Pakistan. However, the situation is deeply problematic because if the case ends up being rolled under the carpet (as numerous other corruption cases have been before it) then it will be a clear signal to the elite in our country that it’s perfectly alright to illegally build and store wealth. On the other hand, if the investigations continue on their present path they will most likely lead to a political crisis at a time when the country most requires peace and stability.
I believe that a solution in which the Sharif family is held responsible for its actions but the overall stability of the country is not harmed is one which will be acceptable to most Pakistanis. However, such a difficult formula can only work if all major political parties agree to work together instead of fighting each other, something that appears unlikely at this stage. One thing is certain though and it is that Panamagate may or may not succeed in unsetting Nawaz Sharif but it has forever marred his legacy.