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As Sharif gets a reprieve, will Imran be able to gain ground?

Published : Apr 25, 2017, 12:24 am IST
Updated : Apr 25, 2017, 12:24 am IST

The PTI says it will keep up the pressure, starting with a rally in Islamabad planned for later this week.

Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (Photo: AFP)
 Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. (Photo: AFP)

OVER the days ahead, legal academics and practitioners will analyse in great detail the judgment delivered last Thursday. From a preliminary reading, it appears the court split on the question of jurisdiction and reach. On one side fell three judges who decided theirs was not the correct forum to establish an uncontested fact of dishonesty. On the other were two who felt the Constitution, and specifically Article 184(3), gave them the space to rule on both the fact and its punishment. The debate over the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction and role in the polity is as old as the court itself. This time it went one way, and with sound reason. It might take a different split, with some other compelling rationale, in the future.

Moving on to the judgment itself, there are two basic parts to it. The actionable part is fairly clear: The Prime Minister and his family will be subjected to an investigation, one overseen by another bench of the court, which will ascertain charges of money laundering and corruption. Sixty days, fortnightly reports, and everyone involved will be made to answer questions. All of this is fairly straightforward.

What is equally clear is the moral part of the judgment, enshrined in the prose authored by all five judges. They clearly say the Prime Minister’s story doesn’t hold. Worse, the story contradicts itself depending on the family member questioned. There is hearsay and flawed evidence, and nothing much that passes legal scrutiny. While the language and its potency changes in those 545 pages, this basic substance is the same in every judge’s opinion. But it doesn’t just stop here. The moral component also includes a discussion of systematic institutional malaise under the incumbent. There are paragraphs devoted to how no organ of the State functions freely, or how appointed loyalists hamper proceedings every step of the way. There are particularly harsh words for the bureaucrats who have shirked their responsibilities.

With the court case out of the way, the outcome from a scandal that began a year ago will ultimately be played out in the realm of politics. For the PML-N, the judgment provides temporary respite and a chance to tie up a story that could hold in the face of a closely watched investigation. Their best case scenario is a clean chit two months from now, which leaves them a full year to focus on their campaign for the next election. The worst case, however, could be an indictment, which as the court mentions, will be sufficient for the PM’s disqualification. The party could find itself rushing through a potentially messy succession, which may compel some of their “freelance” elected representatives to look elsewhere for stability and power.

For the PTI, the judgment has mixed implications. The party failed to get what they asked for, but they are left with another shot two months down the line. Imran Khan’s persistence has paid off in so far he has a text from the country’s highest judicial authority that echoes his party’s view of how the PML-N carries itself in government.

This is a victory of sorts, but one that can only be described as preliminary in nature. PTI is a political party, not an NGO. It frequently talks about raising awareness about corruption and pursuing accountability as a moral crusade, but its raison d’être — as that of any party — is to win a national election. Therefore, a victory of any sort is only as useful as it can help them achieve that particular goal. Where does the judgment take them, electorally speaking? Well, not very far at the moment. The ruling was just technical enough to lose direct political potency. The challenge remains to convert a legal victory (of sorts) into a digestible message that impacts voter attitudes towards PML-N. The PTI says it will keep up the pressure, starting with a rally in Islamabad planned for later this week.

What may hurt the PML-N now, and perhaps in a completely uncharted way, is the moral hit to their leader’s reputation by way of a court ruling. Nawaz Sharif is immensely popular in many parts of Punjab. His popularity goes beyond material benefit and patronage politics, and has acquired a cultural resonance of its own. Part of which is built on a perceived long-time distinction between him and politicians from other parties and other parts of the country. He delivers, others don’t. While others push forward parochial ethnic agendas, Mr Sharif uses the language of development. He was born rich; others have bled public coffers in their climb up the ladder.

It doesn’t matter whether any of this is true in an empirical sense. It is what passes as truth with a significant part of the electorate. What the Panama scandal and its judgment does is sully this relatively pristine truth to a certain extent. Worse for Mr Sharif, it comes at a time when the power crisis stands far from solved. Combined, the two create small chinks in the PML-N’s electoral armour. Depending on how the PTI plays its cards, and how the investigation pans out, these chinks offer the potential of growing bigger in the months ahead.

By arrangement with the Dawn

Tags: imran khan, money laundering, nawaz sharif, panama scandal