On Thursday, Pakistan's Supreme Court announced its verdict in a corruption case against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family. In the past, such allegations of corruption have immediately preceded the dismissal of elected governments for fresh elections or military intervention. For that reason, observers had generally been betting on a regime change in Islamabad. 

In the event, the Supreme Court narrowly ruled that there was not enough evidence in Sharif’s case to remove the prime minister from power. But it also called for the creation of an investigative team to further examine the allegations against him in the months ahead. 

The case against Sharif stems from the 2016 Panama Papers scandal, in which millions of documents concerning accounts with the Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca were leaked by an anonymous source. Some of the documents implied that Sharif and his family had set up offshore companies to avoid taxes. The Sharif family denied the allegations and continued to conceal facts about its assets. Sharif and his supporters also responded by accusing other political leaders and opposition parties of graft.

Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, May 2013.
Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, May 2013.
Damir Sagolj / REUTERS

The already-beleaguered Sharif—the opposition has been demanding his resignation over his alleged involvement in rigging the 2013 elections—has since faced ever-stronger demands to leave office, including from the opposition party Tehrik-i-Insaaf, led by the former cricket star Imran Khan. Khan’s party also held protest rallies and meetings in major Pakistani cities last year. At that time, the Sharif government banned all public gatherings in Islamabad for two months. Police also charged activists with batons and arrested dozens of people in Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The confrontation between the government and opposition parties continued to escalate until the Supreme Court announced the formation of a judicial commission to probe the allegations. The case was ultimately taken to trial in November.

If Sharif had been found guilty, his supporters would have protested, and the chaos might have opened the door to military intervention and the derailment of democracy. Now, Khan has called on the prime minister to step down until the investigation ordered by the court is complete. 

It isn’t surprising that Pakistani politics have been coming to a head over corruption. The country consistently ranks among those with the most perceived corruption on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. A host of financial scams and scandals involving billions of rupees have come to the surface since civilian government returned to Pakistan eight years ago. 

In fact, Pakistan’s civilian governments have always been plagued by graft, which has generally been their downfall. For example, the assassinated Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s first government was removed in 1990, when the president, backed by the military establishment, dissolved the parliament on charges of corruption, bad governance, and lack of law and order. In new elections, Sharif secured an electoral victory and formed his first government, which was dismissed in the same way. After elections in 1993, Bhutto became prime minister for the second time. She was likewise dismissed in 1996. Sharif returned in 1997, but was thrown out in an outright military coup by Pervez Musharraf in October 1999. 

Khan has called on the prime minister to step down until the investigation ordered by the court is complete.

As unfortunate as the disruptions to democracy were, the military’s claims of corruption had plenty of merit. Bhutto and her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, were implicated in a bribery scandal in a deal with Dassault, a French aviation company. Zardari, who eventually became president after his wife died and Musharraf called elections, was popularly known as “Mr. Ten Percent” for his part in financial scams during Bhutto’s second term. His government was the first civilian government in Pakistan to complete its term, doing so in 2013. But along the way, it made little progress on corruption and bad governance. Surveys of Pakistan by Transparency International ranked his administration as one of the most corrupt in the world. According to the group, the amount of money involved in corruption increased from 195 billion rupees in 2009 to 223 billion in 2013. The two-party system built on Sharif and Bhutto (and then Zardari) facilitated corruption.

Neither party held the other accountable for graft. But in 2013, Khan’s Tehrik-i-Insaaf emerged as a third major political force, and it even won a majority in the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Khan has promised to make a new Pakistan where the people enjoy a genuine democracy with rule of law and zero tolerance for corruption, but his party has not been very successful in its provincial administration.

Although it has typically been the military that has undermined civilian governments, these days the judges are real players, too. In 2012, for example, they sent home sitting Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani. In the past, a weakened judiciary was closely aligned with the military, which typically used it to legitimate military coups through provisional constitutional orders. But the judiciary became powerful after Musharraf removed Chief Justice of Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry in March 2007, sparking mass protests. As a result of this movement, Chaudhry was restored in July 2007 as the chief justice of Pakistan. His reinstatement set the tone for a more activist court.

This week’s judgment would have made history regardless of the outcome. Whether it will introduce more accountability to Pakistani politics remains to be seen.

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