ONCE AGAIN, Pakistanis are being reminded of an unfortunate pattern. In the nation’s 70-year history, not one prime minister has served out a full five-year term. They have been thrown out by military coups and dismissed by judges. The latest example came Friday, when Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified — essentially dismissed — Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on grounds that he had lied to the nation about his family’s wealth and financial dealings.
The ouster does seem to be another chapter in Pakistan’s seemingly endless flirtation with state failure and chaos. But not so fast. The court’s action suggests it managed to extract some accountability in a sea of corruption and arbitrariness.
Mr. Sharif, who served as prime minister in the 1990s before being ousted by a military coup, was elected in 2013 with a sizeable margin. He has struggled to respond to Pakistan’s economic woes. But his undoing was set in motion in April 2016, by publication of the Panama Papers, more than 11.5 million leaked files published by an international consortium of investigative journalists. The papers included nearly four decades of data from a law firm based in Panama, Mossack Fonseca, that disclosed a web of offshore transactions by political leaders around the world.
The papers revealed that three of Mr. Sharif’s children owned or could sign authorizations for offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands. This raised questions about the origins of the family wealth. Mr. Sharif told the court through his lawyer that he did not own any shell companies or property through offshore holdings himself, without addressing whether his children did. The Panama Papers led to protests, and calls for his resignation, including from opposition party leader Imran Khan, the former cricket star.
The court subsequently created a five-member panel to investigate, and the panel’s report accused Mr. Sharif’s family of perjury, forgery and hiding assets. It found, among other things, that Mr. Sharif’s daughter, Maryam Nawaz, potentially falsified ownership documents that were dated 2006 but written in a font that was not commercially available until 2007. The court then acted unanimously to force him out of office.
Pakistan undoubtedly faces a period of political uncertainty. The next elections are scheduled for 2018. Meanwhile, Mr. Sharif’s ruling party enjoys a strong majority in Parliament. He is expected to install a loyalist as interim prime minister this week and, longer-term, his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, in the post. Whatever the political outcome, Pakistan seems likely not to be shaken from its desire for closer relations with China, which is pouring $50 billion into infrastructure projects as part of its attempt to build a massive trade route. Pakistan’s military and its intelligence service also will remain powerful forces behind the scenes of the Muslim-majority nation, a nuclear weapons state.
Still, Pakistan has so often been a miasma of uncertainty, impunity, coercion and violence that it is worth applauding the Supreme Court’s determination to see this case to a difficult but necessary conclusion.
It’s a glimmer of hope for accountability and rule of law in a nation that could use much more of it.