Questions after Panamagate verdict

Irshad Salim — IN my humble opinion judgement must be served and seen to have been served — no matter how politically correct or otherwise it may have been, or could become –given our level of cynicism, mistrust and penchant for splitting hairs. That the Supreme Court verdict on Panama case papers aka Panamagate has become a hot potato and being tossed around in different arenas of the society is predictably not abnormal. What’s the new normal though is the exuberance with which spin and counter-spin doctors are having a fields day. Add to it the narratives born out of ever microscopic albeit myopic scrutiny of the world press and stakeholders, and one ends up with an irregular patchwork of a well crafted but seemingly rudderless row-boating of opinions vis-a-vis project democracy which they argue must go on even at the cost of rule of law.

Notwithstanding the foregoing, the need to deconstruct and reconstruct –or shall we brave to say the urge to skillfully demolish and rebuild new norms, value system, rule of law, abhorrence for corruption, etc. in Pakistan, cannot be practiced on the basis of “two wrongs will make one right” dictum unless expediency and “time is of the essence” dictate so — it would be a herculean task though. That’s where and when the judicial process kicks in. Short of that is a recipe for anarchy — our detractors would love it. Somewhere and at a certain point in time accountability must precede or follow after the society has surrendered to elected or nominated authorities. That’s something cardinal in every system — religious, political or dictatorial. So we must move on. At the same time, if there’s room and scope to mentor the nation on something which has already been done for the first time, we all ought to play our role responsibly and sans politics. The burden is heavier this time than the weight of mercury. Dawn’s editorial today alludes to some of these burdens. Heavens won’t fall if post-verdict precedents are further established for the present and future generations of stakeholders — across socio-political divide — they will be guided through the maze, a favor we all who love this country deserve. We are willing to go back to school for the sake of posterity while we are not ready to accept that a conspiracy is at work against project democracy or against the national interests of the country.

Dawn editorial:

OUT of necessary respect for the Supreme Court and abundant caution in a matter where a hasty or premature assessment could trigger controversy, the initial response by sensible and responsible quarters to the Panama Papers judgement was to emphasize the need for immediate political and legal acceptance of the court’s orders. Now that the short but final judgement has been analysed by the legal community, the political class and the citizenry in detail, the implications of it for politics in Pakistan need to be forthrightly addressed. The consensus in expert and independent circles is twofold and clear: Nawaz Sharif has been stripped of the prime ministership on troublingly narrow legal grounds and the judgement has the undesirable potential to upend the democratic process in the country. In the circumstances, Chief Justice Saqib Nisar ought to consider, following an appropriate petition, convening the full court to review the five-member bench’s final judgement in the Panama Papers case.

If the democratic project is to be sustained and strengthened, the rules of the system must be clear, fair and transparent. It had been hoped that the Supreme Court would deliver a well-argued and well-reasoned judgement that would create a desirable and easily implementable legal precedent. Instead, the one that now holds sway in the application of disqualification criteria for elected officials is staggeringly wide and could become the source of chaos in the parliamentary realm. This newspaper called for Mr Sharif’s temporary resignation after the JIT report was submitted to the Supreme Court and has consistently argued that Mr Sharif and his family submit to accountability first in the Panama Papers matter. But Mr Sharif, both as a citizen and as the legitimately elected prime minister, had a justifiable expectation of fair and proportionate justice. That does not appear to be the case in the five-member bench’s final judgement and it has profound consequences for the future of the office of the prime minister and of parliament itself.

The Supreme Court itself can determine the scope of the review, but some of the questions that ought to be addressed are clear. Is, for example, the definition of receivables given in the judgement the only interpretation allowed under the law? What is the scope of Article 62(1)(f) and has it been properly determined by the bench? What constitutes a misdeclaration in a candidate’s nomination forms that can trigger disqualification? Following Friday’s judgement it is not unreasonable to suggest that all parliamentarians face at least some uncertainty about their legitimate qualifications to hold public office. Whatever the legitimate concerns about many parliamentarians’ lack of financial disclosure, a situation in which one hundred per cent of elected representatives are vulnerable to disqualification is surely too destabilizing a situation for a democratic order. The full Supreme Court must urgently step in and provide some necessary clarity.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect PKonweb’s editorial policy.

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