The deed is done. The Supreme Court has finally given its verdict in the Panama Papers case, and has disqualified Nawaz Sharif from holding public office. It has also filed references with the accountability courts against Sharif and his family, with the expectation that allegations of corruption levelled against the family will be investigated over the next six months.

This last part of the Supreme Court’s decision – referring charges of corruption to trial courts – should be puzzling because it implies that Nawaz Sharif has not been disqualified because of the allegations of money laundering and misappropriation of public funds that have dogged him since the publication of the Panama Leaks. Instead, as the Court itself stated in its judgment, Nawaz Sharif has been disqualified on a technicality; when contesting the 2013 elections, the former Prime Minister failed to declare that he was entitled to receive a salary from a Dubai-based firm owned by his son. This fact, which was uncovered by the Joint Investigation Team formed to look into Sharif’s financial affairs, was taken by the Supreme Court as sufficient evidence for declaring Nawaz Sharif ‘dishonest’ which, as per Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, was enough to invalidate his membership of the National Assembly.

Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution – requiring members of parliament to be ‘sadiq’ (truthful) and ‘ameen’ (trustworthy) were introduced by General Zia-ul-Haq as a measure through which to exercise control over Pakistan’s elected representatives. As part of Zia’s broader Islamization drive, these clauses contained severe religious and moral overtones and in the decades since their introduction, have rarely been applied precisely because they are vague and subject to wide interpretation. Indeed, one example of the way in which these articles of the constitution could be abused happened in 2013, when Ayaz Amir was barred from contesting the elections after the Returning Officer for his constituency rejected his papers after claiming that Amir’s newspaper columns were critical of the ideology of Pakistan. This decision was ultimately reversed by an election tribunal. Indeed, no less a personage than Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, one of the judges who just disqualified Nawaz Sharif, stated in 2015 that Articles 62 and 63 could simply not be implemented because they represented a ‘nightmare’ of interpretation and obscurity.

This is important because the manner in which Nawaz Sharif has been removed from office raises some troubling questions about the balance of power between Pakistan’s institutions and the future of democracy in the country. To be sure, no one deserves more blame for Nawaz Sharif’s ouster than Nawaz Sharif himself; upon being charged with corruption, he, his family, and his legal team did everything in their power to mount a confusing and unconvincing defence that unsurprisingly unraveled when subjected to scrutiny. Moreover, in an ironic twist of fate, Nawaz Sharif and his party also chose not to eliminate Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution when presented with the opportunity during the tenure of the previous PPP government. As many non-partisan observers have repeatedly pointed out, defending democracy in Pakistan should never mean providing unconditional support to politicians who are found guilty of misconduct. If Nawaz Sharif is guilty of corruption, he should not be Prime Minister.

The problem is that we still do not know if he is guilty of corruption precisely because it has not been proven in a court of law. While the Supreme Court might have declared Sharif to be untruthful, he has not yet been convicted of the crimes of which he has been accused. Moreover, the use of Articles 62 and 63 to disqualify a sitting Prime Minister has set a precedent that even those endorsing Sharif’s removal may come to regret in the years to come; the constantly shifting and malleable standards of what could constitute ‘truthfulness’ and ‘trustworthiness’ mean that any elected leader could, at any time, be brought before a court and disqualified on the basis of even the slightest lapses in moral judgment.

Some might argue that the possibility of this happening is remote but here it is important to remember the context in which Nawaz Sharif has been removed from power. Contrary to the claims that are constantly being made by Sharif’s opponents in politics and in the media, he is not the first civilian leader to have been subjected to ‘accountability’. While the process was arguably more transparent and thorough than before, the courts have often been used to destabilize or dismantle democratic governments in the past. Conspiratorial as this theory might seem, it is not entirely unjustified to be worried that anti-democratic elements within the establishment might, for example, see the value of deploying Articles 62 and 63 to cut troublesome governments down to size in the future. The fear that the campaign against Nawaz Sharif amounts to little more than yet another witch-hunt against democracy is only strengthened by the perception that ‘accountability’ once again seems to be restricted to powerful elements of the civilian political elite. Reports that General Musharraf has gloatingly endorsed the Supreme Court’s decision and reaffirmed his faith in the legal process, while simultaneously remaining outside the country to avoid facing trial for treason, perfectly encapsulate the contradictions of the accountability process.

The cry to hold everyone accountable – civilian, military, and even judicial – is not an idle one. Any truly just and democratic system would work to prevent the abuse of power regardless of the institutional affiliations and partisan loyalties of those accused of it. The idea that Nawaz Sharif’s downfall was solely engineered by his enemies is difficult to endorse in its entirety, but it cannot be denied that the troubled history of democracy in Pakistan lends credence to the belief that the selective implementation of accountability has been used to weaken strong democratic leaders and their parties while leaving the country’s broader institutional and economic power structure intact. Nawaz Sharif may have deserved to go, but the rationale deployed to engineer his exit has done little to quell fears that the Supreme Court’s judgment marks little more than a return to the democratic instability of the 1990s.

Going forward, it is imperative that certain measures be taken to preserve the integrity of the democratic process in Pakistan. For one, it is necessary that all the major political parties, including the PML-N. respect the court’s judgment and get on with the process of transitioning to a post-Nawaz dispensation while simultaneously allowing the current assemblies to complete their terms. At a broader level, it is absolutely clear that if Nawaz Sharif’s dismissal is to have any historical credibility whatsoever, the process of accountability supposedly initiated by the Panama Leaks should expand even further. While it would be dangerous to make too liberal a use of Articles 62 and 63, all those accused of corruption and subverting the constitution should be tried for it and, if necessary, punished in accordance with the law. The selective accountability of civilian leaders in the past has simply undermined Pakistan’s already fragile institutions, making them little more than tools used to punish a small section of the elite even as the rest of the power structure remains intact. To repeat this folly would be akin to taking one step forward and two steps back.

 The writer is an assistant professor

of political science at LUMS.

hassan.javid@lums.edu.pk