The Supreme Court has given its long awaited ruling in the Panama Papers case yesterday. The five-member bench passed a 3-2 verdict calling for the establishment of a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to probe those tricky and tough questions that the Apex court found hard to address after lengthy deliberations lasting half a year. The proposed JIT would consist of representatives from the FIA, State Bank of Pakistan, NAB, MI and ISI and would seemingly work at an exhaustive pace, submitting a weekly report to a SC larger bench. Apparently, prosecutorial work is to be accomplished in two months. Importantly, although two of the bench’s members, Justice Khosa and Justice Gulzar, wrote dissenting notes that sought the prime minister’s disqualification for having cheated the nation – the other three judges resisted, thus preventing this grand manoeuvre.
Naturally, the cadre and leadership of the PML-N were jubilant and did not miss an opportunity to score points over their rivals from PTI. Indeed, an hour before the so-called “historic verdict’’, Daniyal Aziz and Talal Chaudhry exuded spectacular confidence through verbosity of speech and exaggerated body language; whereas the PTI folk seemed daunted, thus remaining relatively low-key. In fact, Imran Khan even refused to talk to the media that had gathered around the Supreme Court complex. Interestingly, the court’s judgment was no different from that of the PML-N cadre. The foregoing, however, raises questions.
Is this victory for the Sharifs? Did the PTI win if one takes into account minority opinion? Did the PM and the government get a clean chit or is it simply a respite for a couple of months since, according to some analysts Panama II The Sequel has just begun? Will the JIT be any different from the Supreme Court itself? How does this decision impact electoral politics, in particular, and civil-military relations, in general, in the months that follow? The following attempts to address these important questions.
To begin, quite contrary to the wishes and whims of many TV-dependent Pakistanis, especially diehard Imran Khan fans, the 3-2 verdict goes in the favour of the Sharifs, who have survived the fate of former PM Gilani. In a politically charged society, it is no less than a blessing to continue in office as prime minister, and that, too, when general elections are due next year. Disqualification from the bench would certainly have damaged the PML-N in terms of party leadership, organisation and electoral strategy.
In contrast, the court’s decision, in political terms, does not seem to have favoured the PTI, which is seeking nothing less than the political death of the ruling family. Instead, the PTI has now got its work cut out if it wants to take the fight to the electoral battlefield. Moreover, though the SC’s judgment does not represent a clean chit – the Sharifs and the government itself are expected to sail through the JIT phase too, for the latter, technically, would be government-dependent. One wonders how the FIA and NAB would be more efficient given their non-performance from the perspective of the Apex judiciary. One here may cite the inclusion of MI and ISI into JIT as potential danger for the prime minister and his family given their complex history with the top military brass. The latter is most likely to stay away from politicking in this case, as the COAS had already hinted during his recent meeting with Imran Khan. Moreover, within the contemporary context, the civil government is working as per the governance design that was chalked out by the GHQ – the re-establishment of military courts, for example. Thus the Sharifs are not likely going to be facing the music in the months to come, unless, of course, they commit a blunder of major proportions. In addition, as per the history of JIT (and that of the Panama case), the joint investigation teams perform a purely investigative task and usually lack judgmental powers. Since the Sharifs provided the Court with particular types of evidence, which the latter failed to cross-verify on its own, the family would rather sign its own death certificates than submit evidence that risks going against it.
Last but not the least, the very survival of the Sharif family in particular and the PML-N in general point to a gradual increase in their political and electoral clout in the election run-up. The PTI and PPP will have to put in extra hours if they want to have any serious hope of challenging the N-League, especially in the Punjab where PTI lost a by-election to PML-N a day before the Panama verdict. As regards the contours of civil-military relations, the party-in-power would be amused at having avoided unwelcome intervention on the part of the military. This means, then, that the latter will renew all efforts to be seen chasing militants at home and figuring out how to deal with its eastern neighbour as well as the US in the weeks, if not months, to come. In a nutshell, there is life after Panama for each stakeholder and the political parties are very likely to settle scores, not in the court and streets but at the polls.
The writer is a DAAD fellow. He holds a PhD in Political Science and works as assistant professor at IQRA University, Islamabad. He tweets @ejazbhatty