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The 2016 Panama Papers leaks were supposed to be a tool for the forces of democracy. They were meant to expose corruption and reinvigorate institutions. By one reading, the resignation of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif after the country’s Supreme Court declared him guilty in a corruption trial relating to the papers seems like a case in point. In fact, however, it shows that the leaks have become a tool of the anti-democratic in some instances. In Pakistan, the revelations came as the country was undergoing a return to full democracy. Now that process has been set back.
Part of the problem is the way Pakistan’s media handled the leaks. The country’s prominent outlets had long been censored and vilified by the military and powerful civilian politicians alike. Journalists who have spoken critically of the establishment have been attacked fiercely; for example, the journalist Hamid Mir, who was shot in Karachi, had irked Pakistan’s dominant intelligence agency by critiquing its activities against other journalists and civilians. The result of such cases was excessive airtime and a free pass for pro-establishment opinion.
When the Panama leaks came out, however, the media opened to voices critical to the sitting party (if not the entire establishment). Conventional wisdom quickly came to hold that the prime minister should resign. Most mainstream television programs organized panels vilifying Sharif for looting the nation. And the majority of the public went along, blaming him for the corruption that has plagued the nation for a long time.
At the forefront of the media campaign has been Imran Khan, head of the Pakistan Justice Party, who had tried to galvanize the nation against Sharif since the leader took office in 2013. Although Khan presents himself as a pro-democratic leader, he has at times been called a puppet of the military. In fact, he once admitted to having been brought into politics with the help of former military dictator Pervez Musharraf. Critics assert that the purpose was to counter other politicians and keep the military in the political mix. And at any rate, Khan’s politics are clearly aligned with the military establishment, both in terms of domestic and foreign policy. He has at times even promoted tolerance of the Taliban.
The Panama leaks were a lucky break for Khan, giving the politician the opportunity to organize protests and petition the highest court in the country to investigate the sitting prime minister on corruption charges. Sharif might have strengthened his position in this equation by serving the nation and by taking his critics seriously. Instead, he ignored the opposition and assumed that the corruption allegations would blow over.
Sharif’s resignation marks the end of an era in which politicians seemed to be gaining the upper hand over the military. In Pakistan’s seven-decade history, politicians who had challenged the brass had typically been ousted one way or the other. After one civilian administration completed its full term in 2013 and Sharif was elected in a peaceful transition of power, it seemed like the cycle had been broken. But now it is clear that, ultimately, no one can escape the military’s influence.
Through decades of dictatorships, Pakistanis improvised a dance between hope for democracy and passive support for military power. Merely out of desperation for stability, the nation welcomed past dictatorships. And now, another alluring candidate is standing in line. Khan’s drive for power might become his greatest vulnerability. In a real leadership position, he would have to handle the demands of aligning with the establishment and trying to govern. In short, Pakistan’s cycle of politics begins again.