Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Business Recorder Editorial July 11, 2017

The shape of things to come The report of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to the Supreme Court (SC) bench hearing the Panama leaks case against Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif and his family appears from what has appeared in the media to lay the foundations for further conflict and struggles. The voluminous 10-volume report elicited, logically, a postponement of the proceedings till July 17. Presumably this will give time to the bench as well as the petitioners and respondents (all of whom have been given copies) to study it and prepare their respective responses. The bench has indicated it will not pronounce on the matter before hearing all parties. This is as it should be. Contrary to a widespread perception that the SC would move immediately in the matter as soon as the report landed before it, the judicial process requires a fair hearing to all concerned, particularly the respondents. All this will unfold in the near future but even at this juncture it is possible to examine the main findings of the report and what they may portend. In essence the findings of the JIT posit that the PM and his family have not been able to satisfactorily explain the disjuncture between their declared wealth and sources of income, allegedly submitted false and doctored documents to justify their explanations of the money trail of various transactions involving foreign countries and offshore companies, have mis-stated the actual beneficiaries of some of these offshore companies, and attempted deliberately, directly and indirectly, to mislead the SC. These are serious findings indeed, exacerbated by the report’s pointing to anomalies and contradictions between the statements of various members of the (extended) Sharif family. However, one must resist the widespread temptation to rush to judgement. Let the court deliberate the matter in a manner ensuring due process. The responses to the (partial) availability of the report hold no surprises. PML-N ministers held a press conference in which they rejected the report and vowed to fight it through legal and political means,. The opposition, also no surprise, pounced on the report to demand the immediate resignation of the PM on moral grounds, even before the case has concluded. The government however has explicitly rejected any such notion. Apart from seeing through the court case itself, the opposition appears to have few good options. Threatened street agitation does not at present seem to offer sufficient traction to ensure the goal of unseating the PM. Nor does the emergency session of the National Assembly (NA) demanded by the main opposition parties present good outcomes. If the opposition moves a no-confidence motion against the PM, it is likely to be easily defeated because of the unassailable majority enjoyed by the ruling party in the NA. And if the PM defeated such a move, the opposition’s hands would be tied from repeating it in any relevant timeframe. It should be noted in passing that the case from the very beginning has attracted comment from all and sundry, having thrown the rule of not commenting on matters sub judice to the winds. It has taken the SC all this time to take notice of the matter. Only now has the bench issued a contempt notice to a media group and its reporter for directly approaching a member of the bench to solicit his views through a landline call. And the bench now also requires the record of PML-N ministers’ speeches over the last two months. Hopefully this belated attention to the free-for-all circus that has been swirling around the case will now be restrained if not silenced. As for the stakeholders in the democratic system, which includes the opposition as well as the ruling party, they must act with the requisite restraint to ensure that vested interests do not take advantage of the uncertainty engendered by the JIT report and the SC proceedings to follow to precipitate the kind of political crisis that in our past has led to a folding up of the democratic system per se. Without subscribing to the self-serving theory that holding the PM and his family accountable for their wealth, income, and financial matters constitutes in and of itself a threat to democracy, there are nevertheless enough precedents in our history to make the caution above worthy of serious consideration.

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