By Ayesha Siddiqa
July 28, 2017
Nawaz Sharif is a distracted leader; the Supreme Court’s next step will determine if he’s seen to be victim or culprit
The office of Pakistan’s Prime Minister is subject to pulls and pressures far in excess of those in other democracies. But even by these standards, Nawaz Sharif is under inordinate stress. He is facing a court case and a scathing media trial.
A three-member Bench of the Supreme Court is yet to give a final verdict regarding his disqualification. The decision will be based on the report by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) established by the orders of the court to investigate Mr. Sharif and his family’s assets after the leak of the Panama Papers related to holdings in offshore companies.
The question now is whether the Chief Justice will give a verdict based on the decision of the three judges or call for a larger Bench. The judiciary might like to get the decision popularly accepted by calling for a larger Bench. It is not as if all onlookers are convinced about the judges or the JIT being bipartisan.
Odds stacked against PM
It is a fact that corruption investigations are not easy, especially when the country’s main anti-corruption institutions, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) and the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA), lack forensic investigation expertise. Even in the case of some of the Sharifs’ assets, the JIT hired the services of a foreign company. Notwithstanding such lacunae, the highest court was willing to open up a Pandora’s Box of investigating “a constant murmur nationally as well internationally about respondent No. 1 (Nawaz Sharif) indulging in corruption, corrupt practices and money laundering”. If proven guilty, Mr. Sharif cannot hold office as per Article 62 (1) (f) of the 1973 Constitution as he would be declared as not being Sadiq (truthful) and Ameen (honest). Even if the judges feel uncomfortable using the JIT report as the basis of their decision, the axe could still fall on Mr. Sharif on the basis of him officiating as a director in a company registered in the UAE while he was heading the government.
There are today very few people betting on Mr. Sharif completing his term, which if he does, he’d be the first Prime Minister to do. But as far as the popular narrative in the country goes, Mr. Sharif is already gone. The working of the state bureaucracy has already slowed down in anticipation of some transition.
There are even rumours of Mr. Sharif’s current Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar, being favoured by both the Establishment and the rival Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party as one of the candidates to replace him while the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) government is allowed to complete the term.
In any case, there will be no hurry to hold the next elections due to the need for a new delimitation of constituencies based on the recently held census — senior judges believe the delimitation should take place. Meanwhile, Mr. Sharif’s future role in politics will be determined by how far the court proceedings drag and how it turns out personally and politically for him in the months and years to come. What is certain is that Mr. Sharif is not inclined to resign, as was expected of him, but, if it comes to that, to go down as a political martyr — a man politically victimised by non-parliamentary institutions of the country.
The media campaign aims to make him bleed politically and increase his losses the longer he stays. Interestingly, there are serving state officials in numerous WhatsApp groups who are gently directing conversations in a certain direction, or watching while their partners do the same. It is not that lack of accountability is not a huge problem in Pakistan but that accountability has always been used as a political tool to punish rivals. Hence, ordinary people forgave Dr. A.Q. Khan, the architect of Pakistan’s nuclear programme, and accept him as a hero despite his confession on television regarding illegal sale of nuclear technology because in their eyes he did return something for all he took. Also, in the absence of the enactment of a strong law or principle of the rule of law, even courts are perceived by the man on the street as either corrupt or highly political. Moreover, when the law is meant to selectively conduct accountability (excluding the military and the judiciary), many raised eyebrows at an earlier judgment in the Panama Papers case that quoted Mario Puzo’s The Godfather but no law.
Since the power rests with the judges, their verdict will influence the short- or longer-term future of the Sharif family. The real conversation in the drawing rooms these days is whether it is just Mr. Sharif who will be disqualified or whether it would extend to his entire family — two sons and a daughter who are the ones actually named in the Panama leaks. With his eyes already on the 2018 elections, Mr. Sharif would hope that his daughter and political heir, Maryam Nawaz, survives this crisis. If the entire family is disqualified, it will certainly send a signal that things are up for grabs.
This means that even if the PML (N) remains, it would be mired in infighting and could be as easily manipulated as the Pakistan Muslim League (Quaid-e-Azam) was. While parts of central and north Punjab will remain aligned with Mr. Sharif, there will much greater activity in south and south-west Punjab where people will be influenced by, as per local political lingo, ‘whichever way the strong wind blows’. This is translated as a clear indication that the Establishment is not in a party’s favour.
But the process of shifting gears will essentially start with electable candidates moving to another party or contesting elections as independent candidates. In urban centres, the anti-corruption slogan, compounded with the anti-incumbency factor, will play a role.
The case against Mr. Sharif is indeed critical as the manner in which the court proceeds will determine not only his short- to medium-term political moves but also his long- to longer-term future. If the judges do not appear bipartisan and use the principle of law rather than their opinion — a fashion that dates back to Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry’s days — Mr. Sharif will be perceived as a victim rather than a culprit.
Even his disqualification will then generate the myth that he was punished for something else rather than what the court and the JIT tried him for. This may not save Mr. Sharif now but will haunt the Establishment in a few years.
Ayesha Siddiqa is author of ‘Military Inc. — Inside Pakistan’s Military Economy’, and research associate at SOAS South Asia Institute