A relentless pursuit of the Panama leaks issue by Imran Khan, prolonged but at times procedurally flawed investigation, and a unanimous but controversial decision by a five-member Supreme Court bench finally led to the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif from the membership of the National Assembly and his ouster from the position of the Prime Minister. While the accountability of a sitting Prime Minister and his family is a welcome development on the assumption that the process of accountability henceforth would be carried out across the board, the controversial character of the Supreme Court decision has the potential to cause political instability and uncertainty in the country. If the latter possibility materialises, it would also have a negative impact on the economic progress of the country and its external security. All the major political parties, especially PML(N), PPP, and PTI, as well as the various important institutions of the state carry a heavy responsibility on their shoulders to ensure that the democratic process is not derailed, the new Prime Minister is smoothly elected, political stability is maintained, economic growth is promoted, and the country’s external security is safeguarded. In view of the serious challenges confronting the country both internally and externally, it simply cannot afford another era of internal political instability as happened during 1990’s.

It is a bitter reality of Pakistan’s political history that none of the elected Prime Ministers was allowed to complete his full term on one pretext or the other. By way of contrast, most military dictators remained in powers for ten years or so. The democratic process was invariably interrupted through military interventions which were later validated by the superior judiciary to its discredit. It was hoped that, with the resumption of the democratic process in 2008 following the popular movement for the restoration of the superior judiciary, the era of military dictatorships would be behind us. However, the PTI dharna of 2014 against the Nawaz Sharif government on the unproved charge of rigging of the general elections of 2013, during which Imran Khan repeatedly expressed the hope for intervention by the “umpire”, raised questions in the minds of many about the validity of this conclusion. Fortunately, the COAS at the time resisted the temptation to send the elected government packing, thus, allowing the democratic process to remain in place.

The Panama leaks issue once again provided an opportunity to PTI to cut short Nawaz Sharif’s tenure as the Prime Minister. It finally succeeded in this effort through the Supreme Court decision of July 28 in which Nawaz Sharif was declared to be unfit for the membership of the National Assembly and thereby for the position of the Prime Minister. The disqualification order was issued because, according to the Supreme Court bench seized of this matter, Nawaz Sharif had failed to declare his un-withdrawn salary of 10,000 dirhams from Capital FZE in his nomination papers for the 2013 general elections. According to the bench, the unwithdrawn salary was “receivable” and had, thus, become an asset. Therefore, it should have been declared as such by Nawaz Sharif in his nomination papers. The view taken by the Supreme Court bench is already being subjected to severe criticism by some highly regarded members of the legal community in Pakistan. They are of the view that Nawaz Sharif as an individual was right in claiming that since he had not drawn the salary from Capital FZE, it did not constitute his income and accordingly it couldn’t form part of his assets. So, according to this interpretation, he was under no legal obligation to declare his un-withdrawn salary as an asset. It is also worth noting that all other charges against Nawaz Sharif and his family members have been referred to NAB for trial and, therefore, remain unproven for the time being.

Some lawyers are also questioning the justification for using every minor omission in an asset declaration form for nomination as a ground for disqualification under Article 62 (1) (f) of the Constitution. Further, under Article 10 (A) of the Constitution, every person is entitled to a fair trial and due process which, besides else, should provide for at least one right of appeal. The question, therefore, arises whether the Supreme Court bench was justified in taking the decision itself on the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif under Article 62 (1) (f), thereby denying him the right of appeal, instead of referring the matter to the Election Commission or some other forum for a decision. Finally, there are different views on the definition and scope of the terms “Sadiq” and “Ameen”. In the absence of a legally approved and generally accepted definition, a court should be extremely cautious in giving a verdict on the question, especially the Supreme Court which in such matters should remain a court of appeal rather than a court of first trial. Hopefully, these and other relevant legal issues would be reviewed and clarified by the full court headed by the Chief Justice in response to an appropriate petition.

Despite the reservations given above, the reality is that the Supreme Court decision has been issued and must be implemented until and unless it is modified by another decision of the apex court. It is equally important that the process of accountability should be applied without any discrimination to all public office holders including not only parliamentarians but also bureaucrats, generals, judges, and others. If corruption is to be eliminated, accountability must not be carried out selectively. There should not be any sacred cows. It is ironical that General (R) Pervez Musharraf, who faces high treason and other charges in Pakistan, should be calling for the accountability of all while remaining a fugitive from law. While making such calls, he should have the sense of honour to return to the country and present himself before the courts for clearing himself of the charges levelled against him. An indispensable condition for the elimination of corruption is the establishment of the rule of law in the country so that the powerful and the weak, the rich and the poor are treated equally by the law enforcement authorities and the judiciary. Nobody should be above the law.

Above all, it is incumbent on all patriotic elements belonging to various walks of life to act with circumspection in dealing with the evolving situation in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision on Panama leaks. They must act in such a manner in their respective spheres of life as to strengthen the democratic process and safeguard political stability in the country. Political parties should focus on building up democratic traditions and strengthening the various state institutions. Individuals come and go. It is the strength of institutions which ensures the stability of the country and the effective functioning of its government in the best interest of its people. Finally, while establishing and strengthening the principle of civilian supremacy in the conduct of governmental affairs, all state institutions must learn to function within their constitutional limits. No state institution alone, including our military establishment or the civilian leadership, has the monopoly of wisdom or patriotism.

Pakistan is currently faced with serious external challenges at the regional and global levels. Its internal weakness and divisions will encourage its external enemies in the pursuit of their nefarious designs against its security and economic well-being. The most serious threat to its security emanates from India. The situation in Afghanistan and policy differences with the US are other challenges confronting the country. We need to put our act together and face the external threats to our national interests with unity and determination.