Panama Papers verdict: Nawaz Sharif is booted out of office, making a comeback won't be easy
An important question that arises after the fast-paced events in Pakistan is why the establishment as a whole appeared to be determined to bundle Nawaz Sharif out of office before his term ends.
Nawaz Sharif is back on the lower end of the roller coaster again. After being pushed out of office for the third time, the former prime minister of Pakistan is probably used to this to-ing and fro-ing. Still trying to retain some hold on the prime minister's office, he has now ensured that his brother Shehbaz Sharif, who is the current chief minister of the Punjab province, steps into his office. Nawaz would hope that Shehbaz should last at least till the polls in June 2018. His calculation would be that by that time, he and his family, who effectively rule most of the country, would be able to turn the tide in his favour. After all, he’s done it before.
However, it's not going to be so easy this time. Even a cursory perusal of the timeline of the events in the court, which began in mid-2016, shows that the court is in no mood to let things slide. Indeed, in comparison to most of the South Asian courts, it is mysteriously active. First, it refused to take on board any of the petitions by the political opposition terming them "frivolous". After all, the cases being cited against Nawaz were more than two decades old and had been the subject of allegations since the 1980s. Then the court changed its mind, and took on the case, and even had a preliminary judgment ready before 6 months had passed.
In its April 2017 judgment, it not only directed that a Joint Investigation Committee (JIT) be set up, it also shuffled the nominees around until it. The point was why the court changed its mind on a legality that it had itself upheld. The team included one former military intelligence officer, admittedly of repute, as well as an officer from the dreaded ISI – both clearly unlikely to look favourably on Sharif or his family. To top it all, the court directed the team to submit its report within four months. Once the JIT submitted nine of its ten volume report, the court has now reportedly called for all the files to be transferred to the National Accountability Bureau within six weeks, and cases to be registered against the Sharifs. The court also wants the case itself to be brought to conclusion within a month.
The question that now arises is what options lie with the former prime minister. Legally, it is possible that he could have waited for the president to formally ask for his resignation. But he appears to have taken the advice of his party leaders, and chose to step out. He can no longer even enter Parliament. It may be pointed out that the court has decided his fate on the basis of Article 62(1)(f)of the Constitution, which states the requirement that a member of parliament has to be "ameen" (honest). The highest court made it amply clear on Friday that it does not consider Nawaz to be in this category given the nature of the evidence against him.
The option of choosing a successor who is sufficiently pliable was possibly not too difficult. The Sharif family has virtual control over the government. But a family that is busy defending itself in the court — and that too probably over the next few months — has to look to its flanks. There are senior leaders within the party who have been jostling for space. The Lahore and Sialkot sections, which form the heart of the party, have to be kept happy. Allegations against the interior minister are that he is positioning himself to run the show. Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan’s grandfather, father, brother, and three brothers in law, not to mention several nephews are all in the army. But to do him justice, that aspect does not appear to have affected his political choices overmuch.
Meanwhile, the rumour mills are predicting an exodus of the faithful to parties like the Pakistan Muslim League (Qaid), which was once formed by the deep state to nullify Sharif and his ilk. The key is whether Nawaz can convince his colleagues that he can not only just hold the fort, but also turn his disqualification into an asset in the next elections. Pakistanis love a victim.
Outside, the opposition leaders are rubbing their hands in anticipation. Imran Khan’s crusade — for it was nothing less — against Nawaz has made him a winner in the public eye. The aged cricketer has a clean reputation in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and has managed to bring about some administrative improvements in that chaotic area. Already, some stalwarts from Sindh have joined his ranks. After all, the first persons to smell which way the wind is blowing are the politicos. Asif Ali Zardari meanwhile is likely to keep out of the way for the time being. His own earlier cases of money laundering are lying in wait.
An important question that arises after the fast-paced events in Pakistan is why the establishment as a whole appeared to be determined to bundle Nawaz Sharif out of office before his term ends. The key is that a prime minister who (finally) completes his term, is one that will shape the caretaker government that will take charge before the next election. Despite constitutional provisions to ensure its impartiality, its easy enough to ensure that such a government becomes a rubber stamp one, which will ensure that matters are arranged to the satisfaction of those who appointed them. Secondly, and quite apart from the above, is the fact that Nawaz would probably win the next election on his own merit. The economic front has improved somewhat with better power generation to cite one factor. Terrorism has dipped in terms of the sheer number of incidents, and the average Pakistani sees nothing very much wrong with anyone — head of state or otherwise — making money while the going is good.
The speed with which the courts are closing in on him is clear. Whether this will usher in a new era of accountability as most Pakistanis hope is yet unclear. The public is moreover notoriously fickle. If the tenth volume of the JIT – which has not been made public – is indeed a series of requests for information from foreign individuals and governments as is said, then more leaks and corruption charges are likely. And some of them may stick. Look out for more breaking news.
The author is former director of the National Security Council Secretariat.
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