The last two weeks in Pakistan have spectators experiencing a sense of deja vu and disappointment. Once again, a sitting Prime Minister has been accused of robbing the nation for personal gain by his political opponents as the nation continues to experience threats from militants and grapples with a divided society. The current government and the political parties vying for control continue to engage in activities that are ultimately pointless at the expense of the state and its people.
This sensation of deja vu is exacerbated by the fact that the prime minister being accused of corruption is none other than Nawaz Sharif. Sharif, who has been haunted by allegations of corruption since the early 1990’s, was overthrown as a result of them by the 1999 coup orchestrated by the Army General Pervez Musharraf. The latest set of corruption allegations stemmed from the release of the Panama papers, earlier this year, that revealed that Sharif’s children possessed offshore companies and assets that had not been made public previously raising questions of morality, legitimacy, and sources of revenue.
The recent set of allegations and surrounding controversy has been spearheaded by Sharif’s most ardent critic, Imran Khan. Khan has made the issue of corruption the central tenet of his political party “Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf” (PTI). The name of the party, translated as “Pakistan’s Movement for Justice”, has called for the removal of Nawaz Sharif from his post as Prime Minister in order to provide justice to the people. Khan’s PTI and four other petitioners approached the Supreme Court to investigate Sharif in light of the Panama papers.
After months of political bickering, tensions regarding the new allegations came to a boil in the aftermath of a terrorist attack and days before the Supreme Court released its decision that it was to hold an investigation into the Prime Minister and his family’s assets. In response to perceived inaction by the judiciary, Khan’s party planned to hold a march that would be reminiscent of his previous “Tsunami March”. Khan and his party would attempt to shut down the capital, Islamabad, until Nawaz Sharif stepped down from his post as Prime Minister or faced charges of corruption. In light of security concerns and the threat of shutting down the federal capital, Nawaz Sharif responded through a show of force.
Sharif ignored adhering to democratic principles and defied the judiciary, who had given the PTI permission to hold the march in a designated location. It should be noted that Khan refused to adhere to the location provided by the Islamabad High Court (IHC) and insisted that he would appeal the decision, taking his argument to the Supreme Court. The Sharif government found this to be both an illegal action and a threat, in light of security concerns and the instability that may occur to future governance stemming from the precedent set by Khan’s actions.
Sharif and his political party, the “Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz” (PML-N), responded by arresting senior members of PTI, placing barricades and shipping containers to prevent access to Islamabad from the North-West province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP), and deployed riot police that were armed with rubber bullets and tear gas to stop the protesters, among whom was Pervez Khattak (Chief Minister of KP). Furthermore, roads to the residence of Imran Khan were barricaded and heavily secured in order to prevent him from joining the march. Amnesty International condemned the actions of the authorities and stated that “there [was] no justification for this repressive crackdown” and that the constitution of Pakistan “guarantees people the rights to freedom of assembly, expression, and movement.”
This episode in Pakistan’s young democracy ultimately displays the misplaced priorities of the ruling elite and the disconnect that these players face from the general population. A few days before the march and the resulting clashes between the protesters and police, a police academy in Quetta was attacked by militants that resulted in the deaths of 61 individuals and over 100 injured. This terrorist attack, like the many others before it, has been dismissed as an unavoidable tragic event and ultimately forgotten.
Neither Khan’s ‘march on the capital’ and its associated rhetoric nor the actions of Sharif addressed the need for improving the security situation in Pakistan or eliminating militant groups. The existence of these groups and their alleged activities cripple both economic progress and the strength of state institutions. Incredulously, these obvious concerns were dismissed/ignored and the opposite took place in the realm of Pakistani politics. The Diplomat reported that both the ruling government and the PTIactively engaged in gaining support from banned religious parties that should be eliminated under Pakistan’s National Action Plan against terrorism. What is even more astonishing is the fact that while the ruling government was attempting to stop the progress of Khan’s march, it allowed the Ahle Sunnat-Wal-Jamaat (ASWJ), an organization that actively incites hatred against Pakistan’s Shia community, to hold a gathering in Islamabad with security from the Capitol Police.
Pakistan’s governing elite continue to instill disappointment, if not anger, to those who view it externally. The elites have misplaced their priorities, either consciously or inadvertently, to matters of the state that should be given a lower priority. Imran Khan’s political message and allegations of corruption, in light of the Panama Papers, should and must be addressed by Nawaz Sharif. Khan, who aspires to lead the nation, should consider the timing and consequences of his actions in regards to the stability of Pakistan and the safety of the populace. Yet, the highest priority that both these individuals must absolutely address is ensuring the safety of Pakistan and its people, not jeopardizing it.