An opposition supporter cheers the news of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's conviction for corruption in Islamabad, July 2017.
An opposition supporter cheers the news of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's conviction for corruption in Islamabad, July 2017.
Caren Firouz / Reuters

On Friday, Pakistan's top court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding any public office after finding him guilty in a massive corruption case. After the Supreme Court referred the evidence that it had gathered in its investigation to Pakistan’s Accountability Bureau and urged the opening of cases against Sharif and his family, the prime minister stepped down. 

The turmoil was the culmination of a year of political drama set off by the 2016 Panama Papers leaks, which appeared to show that the Sharif family had billions in hidden wealth and assets parked in offshore companies. As soon as the leaks became public knowledge, one opposition party, Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf (PTI) led by former cricket star Imran Khan, demanded that Sharif step down and face a probe into graft charges. As PTI-led protests threatened to lock down Islamabad in October last year, the beleaguered Sharif government mobilized to suppress the rallies and crack down on PTI workers across the country. The confrontation, ultimately, led to the case being taken up by the courts in November last year.

During the proceedings, leaders from Sharif’s party, Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), declared the process a conspiracy to topple the Sharif government. The precise villain of the tale varied. Sometimes, the military was implicated as an invisible hand behind Sharif’s trial. Many PML-N leaders believe that PTI is backed by military establishments. Some party stalwarts, such as Assemblymen Talal Chaudhry and Danial Aziz, and Sharif’s daughter, Mariam Nawaz, even condemned the Sharif trial an international effort to halt work on the $47 billion China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) project, which was launched under Sharif administration in 2015. Some local and regional players worry that the CPEC development gives China too much access to the Middle East and Central Asia. Of course, as soon as Sharif stepped down, China reiterated its commitment to complete the CPEC, a part of its One Belt One Road initiative

Sharif might be seen by his base as a political martyr ahead of next year’s elections.

In some ways, the political tension was exactly what Sharif wanted. He has completed four years of his five-year constitutional term; if he survived the case, he might be seen by his base as a political martyr ahead of next year’s elections. This could give him the edge over the country’s other mainstream party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), with which the PML-N has traded power many times over the past several decades. In fact, governments of both parties were disbanded under military influence several times in the 1980s and 1990s, paving the way for a quick succession of administrations led by Benazir Bhutto of the PPP, Sharif, Bhutto again and then Sharif once more before the military took over outright. But Sharif’s poor and weak legal defense against the corruption charges weakened his standing, and likely that of his party as well.

The fact that Sharif was dismissed by lawyers, rather than generals this time, is a sign that Pakistan is at last establishing a system of checks and balances against corrupt rulers. The court’s verdict marks the beginning of a ruthless accountability process. Indeed, far from a derailment of democracy, the elected parliament is still intact and was to choose a new prime minister. On Saturday, the ruling party decided that Sharif's younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, will take over as the party's leader in parliament soon. It selected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, who was until Friday the petroleum minister, as interim prime minister until Shahbaz is elected to parliament and then, presumably, to the prime minister's office. Shahbaz, however, could also be disqualified since he is also implicated in a corruption case.

It might seem logical to argue that democracy will become better over a time if the system is allowed to run smoothly, meaning that the court’s intervention might have been a mistake. But when the direction is wrong, the democratic journey will not end where people want. For too long, parliamentarians of all stripes used the trope of protecting democracy to hide their graft. The former PPP government was able to complete its term—a first in Pakistan’s history—in 2013. In the five years of the former PPP government, however, Pakistan consistently performed poorly on the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International and was among the countries with the most perceived corruption each year.

Today, the judges are the real players in Pakistan. In 2012, they sent home a sitting prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, for contempt of court. Together with the verdict against Sharif, these efforts are a test of whether the judiciary can secure the rule of law and restoration of people’s confidence in the justice system. To an extent, this case helped. The court should continue to hold other officials accountable, both elected and non-elected, who built empires from their misdeeds. Otherwise, there is a suspicion among Sharif supporters that he has been singled out and this will continue to deepen. If the courts are evenhanded, however, ruthless accountability can put Pakistan on a true path to democracy.

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