By Abbas Nasir
July 10, 2018
Two weeks before its general elections on
July 25, Pakistan is bracing for another political storm. On Friday, an
anticorruption court sentenced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to 10 years
in prison in a case arising after the Panama Papers leaks revealed that Mr.
Sharif’s family owned four undeclared apartments in London. The court also
sentenced Maryam Nawaz Sharif, his daughter and political heir, to seven years
The conviction and impending arrest of Mr.
Sharif and his daughter is expected to turn the electoral season fraught and
potentially impact the results, if Mr. Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz,
also known as P.M.L.N., goes to the polls without its star campaigners.
The court acquitted Mr. Sharif of the
charges that he had acquired the apartments by corrupt, dishonest or illegal
means but convicted him for his failure to explain how he came to own the
properties, as he and his family have been living in them since the early
1990s. Mr. Sharif was in London with his wife, who is battling cancer, when he
Mr. Sharif and his daughter have announced
their decision to return to Pakistan on Friday. They would face immediate
arrest and imprisonment. The former prime minister and his daughter have
repeatedly claimed their innocence and attributed their travails to a falling
out with the military over his attempts to assert civilian supremacy.
The electoral campaign has been fraught,
with the media denouncing moves by the military to dictate coverage. The
military is also seen to be working with the judiciary to undermine Mr. Sharif
and his party, and promote the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party, known as the P.T.I.
The electoral battle is being fought for
342 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly, the largest share being 183 seats
from the populous Punjab province. Mr. Sharif’s P.M.L.N. won 188 seats in the
2013 elections. The Pakistan People’s Party was a distant second with 46 seats,
and Mr. Khan’s P.T.I. won a mere 34 seats.
Mr. Khan was dogged as he pushed for the
judicial proceedings against Mr. Sharif and his family. He and his party
celebrated the verdict as a first in the country’s history where the superrich
and powerful have been held to account. Opinion polls show Mr. Sharif’s party
marginally ahead of Mr. Khan’s party.
To investigate the allegations against Mr.
Sharif and his family arising from the Panama Papers, the Supreme Court set up
a team in April 2017, which curiously included officials from Pakistan’s
powerful intelligence agencies, Inter-Services Intelligence and Military
Last July, the Supreme Court disqualified
Mr. Sharif from holding public office because of a misdeclaration. He was found
not to have declared a salary he could receive but never actually did from a
job in a firm owned by his son in Dubai.
The Sharifs believe that the Supreme Court
judgment and the convictions last week were driven by pressure from the
military and that the judges were helpless.
Mr. Sharif and his daughter appeared dozens
of times before the anticorruption court, which made their presence at every
hearing mandatory. They sought exemption from appearing in person several times
as Mr. Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, was found to have cancer last year and was
being treated at a hospital in London. She had a heart attack last month and
has been on life support since.
Pakistan’s political polarization is so
intense and the decline of civility so acute that supporters of Mr. Khan’s
P.T.I. described Mrs. Sharif’s medical condition as a “political drama” to
avoid accountability and generate sympathy before the elections.
Mr. Sharif and his daughter intend to
appeal their convictions in higher courts and seek bail. The interim law
minister has said that they will be arrested at the airport on arrival in
It isn’t clear whether the military will
permit supporters to assemble in any significant numbers at the airport and
risk clashes. The main road from the city to the airport passes through a huge
Mr. Sharif and his daughter also need to
manage the power struggles within their party. Shahbaz Sharif, the younger
brother of Mr. Sharif, who was the chief minister of Punjab, has been running
the P.M.L.N.’s electoral campaign.
He has always advocated avoiding confrontation
with the military establishment and the judiciary, and is campaigning primarily
on the record of his party’s governance. He has a reputation as an able
administrator who delivered developmental projects on time. But he lacks the
charisma and the mass support that Nawaz and Maryam Sharif have.
And their rival, Mr. Khan, is not
hesitating from trying to win support from religious extremists. Last year
religious groups besieged Islamabad, the capital, and accused Mr. Sharif’s
government of blasphemy for changing the wording of an oath for legislators
that dealt with a declaration of the Islamic belief that the Prophet Muhammad
was the final prophet.
Mr. Sharif’s government described the
change as a “clerical error” and reversed it. Mr. Khan, who has been trying to
please religious extremists, accused Mr. Sharif’s party of having tried to
change the wording of the oath to appease a “foreign lobby.” He repeated the
reference recently in a speech.
Concrete political and economic questions
in Pakistan have often been overshadowed by charisma and slogans. Mr. Sharif
and his daughter seem prepared to rally the crowds to vote for their party —
neither can run for office as they have been disqualified by the courts — by
deploying rhetoric and emotion, even if they have to do that from prison cells.
The Sharifs have framed it as the battle for civilian supremacy and democratic
It is an ironic state of affairs,
especially because Mr. Sharif began his political career as a protégé of Gen.
Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1980. He amassed most of his fortune under the
military’s watchful eye when he was being propped up to undermine Prime
Minister Benazir Bhutto and her party in the 1980s and 1990s.
The refrain of a famous poem by Habib
Jalib, a great Pakistani poet, saluting Ms. Bhutto’s battles with the military
said “Dartay Hain Bandooqon Waley Ek Nehatti Ladki Se,” or “The men with
the guns are scared of an unarmed girl.” A defiant Maryam Nawaz recently
recited that sentence in a reference to her own troubles with the military.
While the country’s other three provinces —
Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, earlier known as the North-West
Frontier Province — have a history of defying central authority and of standing
up to the military, Punjab has seldom betrayed such tendencies. This is
possibly because it is heavily represented in the military.
Mr. Sharif is the first popular leader from
Punjab to defy the military. The big question is, will Mr. Sharif and his
daughter’s confrontation win over the electorate in Punjab, or will Punjab
follow the directions from the military establishment? What is clear is that
the political turmoil is bound to continue even after the election results are
Abbas Nasir is a columnist and former editor of Dawn, the leading
English-language newspaper in Pakistan.