One week after the release of the Joint Investigation Team’s (JIT) report into the financial affairs of Nawaz Sharif and his family, public debate on the issue has assumed an increasingly rancorous and polarized character; on the one hand, some have welcomed the JIT report as a watershed moment for political accountability in Pakistan while, on the other hand, many argue that the report will serve as little more than cover for a creeping coup in which yet another civilian prime minister, and possibly his government, will be sent packing at the behest of the country’s military establishment.

Writing in these pages last week, I suggested that it made sense to see the work of the JIT, and the Supreme Court proceedings that led to the JIT’s formation, as a major step towards strengthening Pakistan’s democratic institutions. Flawed as it may be, the JIT and its report represent an alternative to the kinds of political shenanigans that led to the downfall of civilian governments in the past; while it is not the first time civilian politicians have been held “accountable”, it is arguably the case that the process this time around has been relatively more open and transparent than before. Indeed, while the JIT report itself makes some often startling and damning revelations, its tone and tenor, as well as potential issues with the way the JIT went about discharging its responsibilities, the fact is that the Supreme Court is yet to weigh in on the report, and the Sharifs still have access to legal recourse to contest the allegations being made against them.

Having said that, it would also be naïve to dismiss the possibility that Nawaz Sharif’s downfall is being engineered by establishment forces opposed to his agenda, his growing power, or both. After all, there is some reason to believe that elements within the establishment were aligned with previous attempts to weaken and/or oust Sharif, such as the series of sit-ins that marked the first two years of the PML-N’s term, and Pakistan’s history of abortive democratisation gives considerable heft to the argument that strengthening democracy runs afoul of the interests of the powers that have traditionally ruled the country. Added to this is a point that is being made by many increasingly worried observers of Pakistan’s politics; the accountability of civilians is not new, as evinced by the long history of investigations, imprisonment, exile, and even execution, of the country’s democratically elected leaders and politicians, but no military, judicial, or even bureaucratic official has ever been subjected to anything even remotely comparable to this level of scrutiny or persecution. Should this pattern be repeated going forward, Sharif’s ouster or the fall of the PML-N government would represent little more than a return to the soft authoritarianism of the past.

Herein lies the paradox; support an allegedly corrupt Prime Minister and his government in the interests of safeguarding the democratic process, or call for accountability at any cost, even if it means destabilising the democratic system? At the outset, it should be clear that the resolution to this paradox certainly does not lie in the abandonment of Pakistan’s democratic project; while calls for overt military intervention are never absent from the country’s public discourse, the notion that military rule offers a viable alternative to an admittedly flawed democracy should be abandoned. Those who think otherwise need only look at the wreckage of Pakistan’s previous military regimes to understand why. The real debate is over whether democratically elected leaders can be held accountable in a way that does not necessarily imperil the broader process of democratisation while also building the institutional capacity needed to construct a more robust, impartial, and empowered system of checks and balances.

Here, there are a number of considerations that must be borne in mind. While it would be premature and speculative to comment on Nawaz Sharif’s guilt, it would be difficult to find many supporters of the idea that Pakistan’s political elite are not corrupt. This observation is often countered by pointing out how corruption is not necessarily an issue that weighs heavily on the minds of the electorate, as evinced by how the traditional political elite continues to return to power. While true, this argument is premised on the assumption that the institutionalisation of patronage politics, whereby local elites use their access to the state to selectively provide their supporters and constituents with public services, and the mobilisation of votes based on identity politics, are intrinsic features of Pakistani democracy. As such, if patronage and identity act as sufficient mechanisms through which to garner electoral support, corruption will obviously be of marginal importance. However, in a more ideal world, there would probably be widespread agreement with the idea that democracy can and should do better, and that the electoral status quo in Pakistan does little more that legitimise the rule of an elite that views the possession of public office as little more than a platform for private gain. Furthermore, even if it were to be conceded that corruption is of relatively little importance, the simple fact of the matter is that Pakistan’s democratically elected governments, at the federal and provincial levels, are quite simply incompetent. In a country where dozens of people die every time it rains due to inadequate drainage, it hardly makes sense to offer unconditional support to those in power whose job it is to prevent such things from happening.

The reality is that accountability is important, not due to some abstract commitment to ‘justice’ but because democracy is strengthened and made more responsive by keeping those in power uncomfortable. Governments that fail to perform should be punished at the ballot box, and those that abuse their power should be checked by the courts. This is what keeps elected leaders in line, and forces their governments to deliver.

Seen this way, taking an elected Prime Minister to court for financial misdeeds potentially involving public money makes total sense. However, if the process is to be seen to its logical conclusion, it is imperative that calls for Nawaz Sharif to face justice be tempered with a recognition of how it would not take much to throw the democratic baby out with the Sharif bathwater. At a bare minimum, Opposition parties should recognize how allowing the PML-N to complete its term and preside over an orderly transfer of power, sans Nawaz Sharif if necessary, would go a long way to maintaining the continuity of the democratic process. It is also of utmost importance that the proceedings of the JIT and Supreme Court be made as transparent as possible, and that both be subjected to impartial and dispassionate scrutiny; if the Sharifs are to be found guilty, the decision should be based on proof that is irrefutable and a process that is unquestionable. Anything less should rightly be deemed suspect and unacceptable. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, accountability must not begin and end with the Sharifs; General Musharraf continues to evade justice, and many others in the military and judiciary, as well as amongst politicians not part of the PML-N, have yet to be investigated for the myriad ways in which they have broken and twisted the law over the past few decades. After all, they have all been party to the plunder and misgovernance of Pakistan.

Those who deny the existence of a civil-military imbalance in Pakistan, or the importance of it to understanding the dysfunctional nature of the country’s democracy, simply turn a willfully blind eye to history. Yet, for this imbalance to be corrected, it is vital that democracy be strengthened, not just in purely procedural terms, but also in terms of the capacity of its institutions and the trust reposed in it by the citizenry. Supporting a rapacious kleptocracy does not further this purpose. A fine line must be treaded between granting the Sharif’s unconditional absolution and endorsing what may ultimately be a coup in all but name.

While it is not the first time civilian politicians have been held “accountable”, it is arguably the case that the process this time around has been relatively more open and transparent than before.