On Monday, the 10th of July, the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) tasked by the Supreme Court to investigate the financial affairs of the Sharif family is expected to submit a report of its findings. While there has been no shortage of opinion and speculation on the possible outcome of the JIT’s probe, the fevered excitement surrounding it can undoubtedly be explained, at least partially, in terms of its unpredictability; contrary to what many ‘analysts’ have been confidently predicting, there is actually very little publicly available information that could be used to discern the stance that will be taken by the JIT. This is as it should be. It is entirely appropriate that the conclusions reached by the JIT remain confidential until they are published, at which point it would also be correct to provide a complete and transparent record of the JIT’s proceedings and deliberations to reinforce the credibility of the investigation.

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When the JIT finally submits its conclusions next week, it may not actually bring an end to the saga of the Panama Leaks in Pakistan. In the event that the JIT finds the Prime Minister and/or his family guilty of misconduct, they will have the right to appeal to the Supreme Court, a possibility that is likely to stretch the matter out for a few more months. Nonetheless, many would argue that even if Nawaz Sharif and his family are cleared of all the accusations that have been levelled against them, considerable damage has been done to their reputations. While it would be difficult to find an average Pakistani voter who does not suspect, rightly or wrongly, members of the political class to be engaged in corruption and rent-seeking, the manner in which the Sharifs’ affairs have been subjected to scrutiny, and the dubious nature of many of the claims they have made, will simply fuel the belief that they are tarnished. After all, as implied by the initial Supreme Court judgment that led to the formation of the JIT, the inability of the Sharifs’ accusers to conclusively prove any wrongdoing did not necessarily mean that none had taken place.

Over the past few months, the PML-N has made a lot of noise about how the way in which Nawaz Sharif and his family have presented themselves for accountability is unprecedented. This is largely correct, in that it is difficult to recall a comparable precedent; civilian politicians have been investigated before, but usually under extreme duress or in an environment of nakedly partisan political persecution. However, to then suggest that this is somehow laudable in and of itself is problematic. In a democracy, all public officials and elected representatives are ultimately servants of the people, serving at their discretion and discharging their responsibilities within the framework of the law. Accountability should be at the heart of any truly democratic system and if politicians are suspected of wrongdoing, they should expect to be investigated for it and punished if necessary, even if they occupy the highest offices of the land. The Sharifs have not done anyone any favours by submitting themselves before the JIT; they have only done what would be expected in any proper democracy.

Having said that, the fact that the Sharifs have been hauled before the JIT, itself the outcome of a long and sometimes tedious battle in the Supreme Court, could be welcomed as a small sign indicating the slow maturation of Pakistan’s democratic institutions. Just two decades ago, for example, a crisis such as this one might have raised legitimate fears for the survival of democracy in this country, with the specter of overt coups or establishment-backed opposition takeovers looming large on the political horizon. However, five years ago the PPP demonstrated that a government could lose a Prime Minister and continue to rule without collapsing, as is sometimes the case in more robust parliamentary democracies in other parts of the world, and it would be reasonable to expect a similar chain of events should Nawaz Sharif find himself disqualified once the JIT and the Supreme Court conclude their proceedings. This is precisely why hysterical claims that the JIT represents a nefarious plot to derail democracy need to be taken with a pinch of salt; the devil is in the details and while valid questions can be raised about the composition of the JIT, there is a world of a difference between ensuring accountability through the entirely legitimate and appropriate use of the courts, and relying on the military or other unconstitutional measures to topple a democratically elected government.

In short, whatever the outcome of the JIT’s report, the process that has led us to this point should be taken as evidence of the increasing strength, and not weakness, of the democratic system. Going forward, it is important to recognise that regardless of the fate of the Sharifs, significant progress remains to be made in the quest for deeper democratisation. For one, as the PML-N has been right to point out, accountability must not be selective. Not only does this mean that justice should be blind to party affiliation when investigating politicians, officials in other branches of the government – including the bureaucracy, military, and even the judiciary itself – should be subject to the same level of scrutiny as their elected counterparts. Following from this, it is also necessary to remember that the means should not be confused with the ends; more often than not, accountability and corruption are fetishised in Pakistan, with the pillorying of politicians and the spectacle of political combat between antagonistic parties taking the place of actual debate on the pressing issues facing the country. As the coverage of the Panama Leaks shows, the national obsession with political drama has meant that questions of policy – ranging from Pakistan’s deteriorating relations with its neighbours and its ballooning trade deficit to the persistence of the electricity crisis and the ongoing decline in various social indicators – receive comparatively little attention. As the country starts to gear up for its next round of elections, the debate needs to move beyond the question of whether Nawaz Sharif should stay or go and focus, instead, on whether his party, or his opponents, can be trusted to deliver effective governance should the be voted into power next year. In the grand scheme of things the Panama Leaks are ultimately a sideshow; a diversion, albeit an important one, on the road to more substantive democratisation.

The writer is an assistant professor of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk