The still-powerful generals watched these developments from the barracks to which they had retreated. After more than 60 years of changes in military leadership coming only after coups, the civilian-led government replaced the commander of the armed forces at the end of his term.

This was the third momentous achievement for the rule of law and democratic development in Pakistan, which now seemed to be in a strong position to continue strengthening its political system and institutions. Its fairly well-developed political parties competed on a level playing field, elections were held when the constitution so required and transfers of power occurred without violence.

Then, in 2016, the release of the Panama Papers exposed the extent of tax evasion by the world′s wealthy. Members of the Sharif family, it was revealed, had illegally transferred huge amounts of money into numerous offshore companies, which had then invested in expensive properties in London and the Middle East.

Panama Papers trigger ″Pakistan Spring″

These disclosures opened the way for Pakistan′s own ″Arab Spring″ moment, with young people rebelling against the elite-dominated political system. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf – a political party led by the former cricketer Imran Khan – provided just the platform for that rebellion.

March by opposition party Pakistan Tehreek Insaf (PTI) on 29.09.2016 pressing for investigation into the Panama Papers (photo: DW/T. Shehzad)
New democratic impetus: when Pakistan′s premier was caught up in the Panama Papers affair, the opposition PTI threatened to call its young supporters onto the streets if the Sharif family′s financial dealings were not properly investigated. In July 2017, the country′s Supreme Court ruled that Sharif had acted improperly and could not remain a member of the national assembly, let alone prime minister

Featuring a platform that includes a focus on justice and good governance, PTI had been gaining ground since the 2008 election and received a new surge of support from urban youth demanding better services and less corruption. That is no small cohort: some 75% of people in Pakistan′s large cities are below the age of 25.

Wielding its growing influence, the PTI threatened to call its young supporters into the streets if the Sharif family′s financial dealings were not properly investigated. Given Pakistan′s history of military intervention in politics – in 1958, 1969 and 1977 – in response to popular protest, the PTI′s threat had to be viewed very seriously.

Committed to democracy

Pakistan avoided political escalation when the judiciary decided to investigate the Panama Papers′ revelations. In July 2017, the Supreme Court announced its verdict: Nawaz Sharif had acted improperly and could not remain a member of the national assembly, let alone prime minister. The PML(N) elected Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a respected cabinet member, as Sharif′s successor as party leader and prime minister. Military leaders expressed satisfaction at how the situation was handled.

At the same time, given the fragility of its democratic institutions and the lingering threat of terrorism, the destabilising potential of Sharif′s removal should not be underestimated. Trump′s insistence on playing to his nationalist and xenophobic (and, specifically, anti-Muslim) base, instead of advancing the real national security interests of the U.S., heightens the risk.

There is, however, some reason for hope. Pakistan′s response to its recent political challenges indicates a continued commitment to fight for democracy – a commitment that could serve as a badly needed model for many other Muslim-majority countries.

Shahid Javed Burki

© Project Syndicate 2018

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