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Mossack Fonseca and Pakistani democracy

Prime ministers of countries of two hundred million people should never put themselves in a position to have to field questions about why their wealth, or the wealth of their family members, is managed by shady groups that service dodgy clients from off-shore havens like Panama. This much is crystal clear.

The rest of the noise about the Mossack Fonseca scandal that will emanate from the media over the next few days, weeks and possibly months is relevant only as a confirmation of the universal truth that the uber-rich are more adept at making, stashing and expanding wealth than everybody complaining about the means through which their wealth was earned. The off-shore account universe is a global disease and Panama is but one of many places on the planet where people stash money that they want hidden from plain sight, and far away from the eyes and hands of tax collectors the world over.

Prime Minister Sharif and his supporters will claim all kinds of exemptions from criticism for why their family has done business with Mossack Fonseca. They will claim it is not illegal to be wealthy. They will claim it is not illegal to have off-shore accounts. They will claim it is not illegal to own and trade property in London. They will claim that the leak of data from the law firm that they dealt with, whilst the absence of leaks of data from law firms in the British Virgin Islands, or Dubai, or anywhere else, is proof of a conspiracy. They will claim a lot of things, that, depending on your pre-conceived biases, will either be ludicrous or compelling.

Yet in all this, the inescapable, crystal clear fact is that for a third time prime minister, of a country in the midst of a domestic war with terrorists, and a regional geostrategic contest for the ages, in a popular culture obsessed with the fiduciary role of national leaders, there is no excuse for the Sharif family to have its name on lists like the Panama Papers.

Given that the database is still being combed by researchers and that the sheer volume of the Panama Papers data constitutes the largest such leak in history, there will invariably be more names from Pakistan. The Mossack Fonseca firm is one of possibly dozens that do the kind of thing that they do – so it is also entirely plausible that all the names of all the uber-rich, crooks or not, in all the lands will not be and may never be known. In the short term, none of this will matter. The Sharif family has handed every critic an aluminum baseball which will be used to mercilessly kneecap the public perception about the prime minister, his family, the PML-N and, indeed, democracy.

This democracy angle of the debate deserves more than a casual mention. For a very wide swathe of educated urban voters, who are more than likely to be PTI supporters, the PPP and PML-N have come to be seen as the twin towers of mainstream politics in the country. The sub-national enablers for these larger parties are seen to be the ANP and the MQM. A large expanse within the religious right wing (represented by, for example the JUI-F) is also seen to be broadly amenable to being co-opted by these twin towers. The attacks on ‘democracy’ then are not coming from a place of a disgust for the will of the people, but rather for the peculiar manifestation of the will of the people that is expressed through a vote for any of these parties. The PTI voter is therefore, not inherently opposed to democracy, but to the kind of democratic values that are expressed when people keep voting for the PML-N and the PPP.

The big challenge within the discourse, to the democratic system of this country, comes from people acting more implicitly, from within the shadows, and with a much clearer agenda: ensure that political actors can never have an unfettered control over national security, and thereby sustain the power of the Pakistani military to continue to decide what is best for Pakistan, ad infinitum.

There is also a new and emerging threat to the democratic order, and it emanates from potential for the political mobilisation of extremism that the MumtazQadri narrative represents. This narrative, in which all national institutions are targeted for their lack of religiosity, is one that was freely and widely expressed during the pro-Qadri protest in Islamabad last week.

Each of these three challenges to the democratic order are interconnected. During the Bush and early Obama years, the PTI leadership used the US drones issue as a force multiplier for those that work in the shadows, to slow down and disrupt the free exercise of American firepower on Pakistani soil. During the Zia years, the political mobilisation of extremism could be and was managed directly by the General Headquarters, because the role of extremist-in-chief had been adopted by General Zia himself. This in turn helped shape a national character that is ‘Islamic’, at least in name.

Perhaps the best manifestation of the interconnectedness of these strains was the August 2014 to December 2014 dharna in Islamabad, in which TahirulQadri’s religious PAT, combined with Imran Khan’s urban and angry PTI, came together with those that work in the shadows to create a spectacular and sustained challenge to the so-called ‘democratic order’.

Those that defend the democratic order do so for many reasons. One is patronage. The capacity of the PPP and PML-N to draw on those that have benefitted narrowly from their reigns of power is large and cannot be ignored. But there is also a large cohort of democracy defenders in this country who are not invested in the parties or persons of the PPP or the PML-N, but rather are invested in the structural integrity of the republic because of the importance of the structure itself.

Pakistan is a country that needs substantial change. From our collective experiences of inorganic change under military rule, one obvious lesson we should have learnt is that only a politically robust, electorally legitimate and popular government can really deliver substantial change. Almost eight years into sustained democracy, the proof of such change is in plain sight, for anyone interested in seeing it. Provincial autonomy, a constant irritant since 1947, was delivered in 2010 through the 18thAmendment, not by the National Reconstruction Bureau, but through the representatives of the mainstream democratic parties in parliament. The privileging of the construction of public infrastructure, a perennially ignored area for decades has also taken place under these parties. Improved relations with Afghanistan as a national policy, better relations with India, and the ability to say no to the unreasonable demands of friends like Saudi Arabia have all taken place under the stewardship of elected governments.

It is far from adequate, and far from perfect, but the evidence suggests that mainstream political parties and the democratic system have the capacity to do better. This is exactly why the PTI is heavily invested in performing well in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Indeed, that is the underlying premise of being invested in the structural integrity of the republic, as a democracy. That the system can self-correct, and constantly improve.

PM Sharif’s biggest sin is not the imperfections of his infrastructure program, or the absence of coherent civil service reforms, or even the failure to grow the economy as fast it should be growing.

PM Sharif’s biggest sin is that he has exposed the structural integrity of the republic to unceasing and tireless attacks. That those attacks have some merit, makes the sin inexcusable. There may or may not be real financial corruption at the bottom of the Pakistani component of the MossackFoneseca scandal – we may never find out. But the one thing we already know is that at least some of our prime minister’s time will now be dedicated to understanding the scandal and defending himself and his family against it. As the prime minister of Pakistan, that time belongs to us, the people of Pakistan. The honour of that office, the office of the prime minister, belongs to us, the people of Pakistan. The publication of his name, the name of the Prime Minister of Pakistan, in the Panama Papers undermines the office and undermines us, the people of Pakistan.


Mosharraf Zaidi, "Mossack Fonseca and Pakistani democracy," The News. 2016-04-05.
Keywords: Political sciences , Political issues , Political parties , Political actors , Military-Pakistan , Democratic Party , Democracy , Extremism , Corruption , Mumtaz Qadri , Gen Zia , Tahirul Qadri , Islamabad , Saudi Arabia , Afghanistan , PMLN , PAT , PTI , ANP