The Panama Leaks have all the makings of a scandal that will not be forgotten for a long time. Details of politicians and celebrities, scholars and sportsmen stashing obscene amounts of wealth in off shore companies away from the prying eyes of the taxman and the general public is the stuff of legend.
For the time being, the key focus here in Pakistan is the inclusion of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s family in the leaks, with the Imran Khan-led Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) leading the opposition’s offensive against the ruling party. The PML-N finds itself in an unusual situation where it cannot resort to its usual modus operandi of denial, as the Panama Leaks are backed by documentary proof.
Instead, they have tried to go the judicial commission route, another favoured delaying tactic. This, in turn, has been dismissed by the opposition parties, with at least two retired judges refusing politely to head the commission. What is the end game of the leaks here in Pakistan, and can the Sharifs wriggle out of this one as well?
“The Sharifs are not going anywhere unless a pistol is put to their head,” says Ayaz Amir, a former senior member turned critic of the PML-N. “They’ll continue to delay and deflect unless there is immense pressure brought on them, and the only person who can do it is Imran Khan.”
To be fair, Imran Khan is currently leading the political opposition to the PML-N and has not only demanded that an inquiry commission led by the serving chief justice of Pakistan be formed, but has also threatened to march on Raiwind, PML-N’s Nine Zero.
However, the country’s other national party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) has been measured in its criticism, calling for “an unbiased investigation”, and forming a two-member committee to formulate a future strategy. The PPP’s ruling family, the Bhuttos, have also been named in the Panama Leaks, with former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto alleged to have set up a company, Petroline International Inc, along with former interior minister Rehman Malik and nephew Hassan Ali Jaffery.
This claim has been denied. Renowned political analyst, Nusrat Javeed feels that for its part, the PPP is in the right: “they do not want Panama Leaks to become a reason to destabilise the government, and hence want a parliamentary committee to look into the affair.” However, many feel that the PPP’s measured approach has more to do with its own ruling party being named in the leaks rather than to safeguard democracy. The Awami National Party (ANP) has also thrown its weight behind the PPP’s proposal for a parliamentary committee and for safeguarding democracy at all costs.
With the PPP taking the careful way forward, the PTI needs somebody else to partner with on the street to raise the ante against the Sharifs. The focus, once again, has shifted to his summer dharna partner, Tahir ul Qadri. “It remains to be seen if Qadri gets involved, and to what extent can he mobilise his supporters and after the long drawn dharnas of 2014 which accomplished little,” says Amir. “Unfortunately, at the moment, the only vehicles in the country for public protest are the two dharna parties.”
With the major opposition parties going their own ways, it looks increasingly unlikely that there will be enough sustained pressure brought on the PML-N to force their hand and that the issue may well fizzle out. “The leaks will go away, just like memogate,” says Javeed, referring to a memo from Pakistani government officials allegedly requesting US intervention against the Pakistan Army’s plans to overthrow the PPP government.
While many feel that the PML-N may well just sit this latest controversy out, just as it did during the dharnas of 2014, rumours regarding fractures within the Sharif family have also resurfaced. Again, Amir, due to his close affiliation with the party, is in a good position to separate fact from fiction. “That Shahbaz has long wanted to become Prime Minister is well-known, but what’s really telling is his silence on the leaks and not coming to the defense of the family.”
Fractures within senior party members are also well-known, with people like Chaudhary Nisar Ali Khan and Khawaja Asif having not spoken to each other in years. “When the family is in peril, everyone needs to come together, instead Nisar’s gone off to Germany and onwards, these are all very telling signs,” says Amir.
Another source, who requested anonymity due to his continued affiliation with the family says things really went south after the Model Town incident, “There had been a decision to sacrifice Shahbaz to take the pressure off, but there was a heated argument between cousins, Hamza and Maryam, in which the former refused to follow suit.” Things, apparently, haven’t been the same since.
Lastly, there is also a matter of perception amongst the masses. Matters such as tax evasion, hidden incomes and stolen wealth have long been considered a regular feature of the politics of Pakistan. While there has been some hue and cry amongst those that understand the concept of ‘offshore wealth and unaccounted income’, the vast majority of Pakistanis are not entirely surprised/moved by what has come out of Panama. It’s all swept away from the consciousness with a broad ‘all politicians are thieves’ maxim.
On the other hand, most analysts are of the opinion that given the state of affairs, the opposition’s inability to find some common ground to stand together will leave it weakened and fractured. This will play directly into the hands of the PML-N, which, if the matter falls to the wayside, will find itself stronger than before.
It is, thus, imperative that all those political parties that have chosen to take the democratic route forward, bring immense pressure to bear on the shoulders of the PML-N to ensure that a committee is formed, and an inquiry conducted, to its logical conclusion. Knowing Pakistan’s history, this is perhaps too much to ask for.