Panama Papers and the Battle for 2018: PML-N vs PTI

The Panama Papers revelations created a huge storm the world over back in April 2016, haunting many global leaders. Iceland’s premier Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson had to resign and Britain’s then-prime minister, David Cameron, had to explain his financial dealings on the floor of the house. Though the Panama Papers storm has subsided globally, in Pakistan, the dust doesn’t seem to settle. Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan’s second-largest political party Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), petitioned against the prime minister and his family in the Supreme Court of Pakistan for their alleged involvement in the scandal. An apex court is currently hearing petitions against the first family. It is the most talked about issue in Pakistani politics at the moment, and can have far reaching effects for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s electoral ambitions.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, chief of the ruling party Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N), and his children are under the microscope for their four flats in London, which according to the Panama Papers are owned by two offshore companies established through the Mossack Fonseca firm in Panama. The family doesn’t disassociate itself from the flats and offshore companies but distances the premier and his daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif (or Maryam Safdar, her legal name) from any of these assets. PTI wants to establish that Maryam is the owner of these flats and is holding these flats for her father. As of this week, Imran Khan’s counsel has completed his arguments before the Supreme Court of Pakistan, and the case is expected to conclude before the month ends.

The timing of the case is crucial. Only 15 months remain for the 2018 elections. Political parties like PTI and Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) have already begun campaigning, and they are acutely aware that the Panama Papers case will have a bearing on the outcome of the elections. In fact, the Panama scandal is already a buzz word on the campaign trail, being invoked at rallies such as PTI’s recent one in Bahawalpur.

PTI understands that the politics around the Panama case is more important than the legal outcome, and it would rather lose the legal battle than the political one. That is the reason why PTI chief Imran Khan and dozens of his party members attend the hearings on a daily basis. And both the PTI and the PMLN are trying to control the narrative inside and outside the court, to get media attention and energize their voter base. For instance, PTI’s counsel Naeem Bukhari read a report in court that did not hold any legal credence, and the judges reviewing the case have remarked that they cannot announce their verdict based on political statements.

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Regardless of the outcome of the court case, Imran Khan’s supporters believe that the prime minister is corrupt. Imran Khan plans to reinforce this perception and use the Panama Papers as an empirical reference against the Sharif family. Based on the remarks of judges, there is consensus among journalists as well as political analysts in Pakistan that PTI will not be able to oust Nawaz Sharif through the judicial route. In fact, many PTI members also share the same sentiment in off-the-record discussions. However, they have successfully managed to taint the political career of Nawaz Sharif to their electoral benefit— they have ensured that the voters will always associate Nawaz Sharif and his family with the Panama Leaks. Their alleged illicit Mayfair apartments in London will haunt them forever.

PTI is also trying to kill two birds with one stone. Nawaz Sharif isn’t the only target—it is his daughter that irks PTI more. Maryam Sharif is the heir to the throne. Ever since the PTI’s 126- day sit-in against the government on election rigging in 2014, Maryam has taken the reins of PML-N’s media strategy and is calling the shots. A glimpse of her credentials came to the fore when Nawaz Sharif had to go to London for his open heart surgery last year. In his absence, Maryam held down the fort, meeting international dignitaries and ambassadors. That was a message to her political opponents that she means business.

PTI wants to close down all doors for Maryam to enter politics and continue her father’s legacy. She is considered a threat, and the Panama Papers scandal is a chance for PTI to neutralize that threat. Though it is unclear if Maryam will contest the elections in 2018, PTI wants to make her as controversial as possible before she steps into the limelight.

It is said that it isn’t the opposition that wins the election; it is the government that loses. And for every losing government, there’s a root cause for its downfall. Can Panama Papers be that reason? The Panama Papers leak may not hurt PML-N in court but it is likely to echo loudly throughout the elections, with PTI and other opposition members using the episode to their maximum advantage.

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Image 1: Flickr, ITU pictures (cropped)

Image 2: Flickr, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf

Posted in , Elections, Pakistan

Muhammad Saqib Tanveer

Muhammad Saqib Tanveer

Muhammad Saqib Tanveer is a broadcast journalist and holds a Master’s Degree in International Relations. Saqib works with Geo News, producing Pakistan’s most-watched weekend news show. He is also a fellow of the Atlantic Council's Emerging Leaders of Pakistan program. Saqib has previously served as a Young Development Fellow at the Ministry of Planning and Development, where he helped the government in drafting the country’s national development plan Vision 2025. Saqib regularly writes for local newspapers and magazines with a special focus on regional politics. Saqib has also produced documentaries on countering violent extremism, the Army Public School massacre, and the health/education system of Pakistan.

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