Verdict in Avenfield case may be final blow for Nawaz Sharif, but his PML(N) faces bigger threats from in-house divide, PTI
Pakistan's National Accountability court on Friday sentenced Nawaz Sharif to 10 years in jail and his daughter Maryam to seven years in the Avenfield case.
The expected happened in Pakistan on Friday, with an anti-corruption court declaring former prime minister Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz, among others, guilty of owning assets disproportionate to their income. This particular case is related to the ownership of upscale apartments in London and constitutes only a part of the numerous charges against Sharif and his family. Sharif and Maryam were both absent at the hearing, at which the former prime minister was sentenced to ten years in prison and his daughter, seven years.
The verdict by the National Accountability Court, which has been hearing the case on the orders of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, is quite surprising. A review of the findings of the Joint Investigation Team and the subsequent Supreme Court judgment makes it clear that there is no evidence against Sharif, at least on paper. What is worse is that the final "evidence" presented to remove Sharif from the prime minister's post was an "ikama" — a work permit for the United Arab Emirates that allows (undoubtedly crooked) parliamentarians and businessmen to set up bank accounts abroad. Those holding public office are not allowed to hold any other office, and on these grounds Sharif was ousted.
It is significant to note that the final sentence was pronounced in the absence of the accused and after five delays on some very questionable grounds, including lack of photocopies of documents and Friday prayers.
This could be the finish line for Sharif and a huge setback for his Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), a mainstream party that has dominated the political scene in Pakistan since it was formed in 1981. The verdict has opened up the possibility of several scenarios, and Twitter gleefully analysed these on Friday, making #AvenfieldReference — referring to the apartments the Sharif family owns in London's Avenfield House — one of the top trends worldwide.
Sharif's next steps and hurdles
First, as everyone agrees, Sharif has to return to Pakistan for his political survival. No matter how much the people may sympathise with him because of his ailing wife, the victim card the family has played repeatedly will only work if the audience can see the victim. Timing is everything. If Sharif returns within the week, party workers can still bring crowds to the streets and pressure the establishment to find a way out. A pardon by President of Pakistan Mamnoon Hussain under Article 45 of the Constitution is possible, provided that the caretaker government is allowed to forward such an appeal. After all, it was no accident that the verdict was timed to make sure that no Sharif appointee was in the prime minister's chair. While he has the option of a presidential pardon, it depends on the party leadership.
Sharif's second option arises from the first. While the PML(N) has the money to draw a crowd, it is unclear whether the top leadership will be open to this idea, given the divide in the higher rungs of the party. His brother and former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif has been leading the PML(N) while he is away. His few public appearances, particularly at the rally in Karachi, have been disappointing, to put it mildly. His press conference after the verdict was nearly the final nail in the coffin for the Sharifs, so lacking was it in any conviction or grand plan.
The younger Sharif is known to be an efficient administrator and a shrewd player, with the latter quality now coming to the fore. By no means is Shahbaz one to storm to a revolutionary victory. So far, he has opted to be accommodating with the establishment and fight on the basis of his governance record. Besides, he has his own family to think of, particularly his sons Hamza and Salman. After the latest verdict, grooming his sibling would seem to be the next obvious move, but only down the line. However, as neither Shahbaz nor his sons are fit to be prime minister yet, the other choice he has is to let Shahbaz steer the party even while losing power in his home state.
This brings us to the third concern plaguing the Sharifs. Punjab is no longer a bastion of the clan, and Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) has been making inroads in the province. However, the PML(N) faces a bigger threat from within the party — the demand for a separate province of South Punjab has been raised once again, and this time, it has the support of powerful politicians who made the last-minute decision to leave the PML(N). Former interim prime minister Balakh Sher Mazhari is leading the new "Southern Punjab Province Front".
Punjab is also home to a medley of small religious political parties, some of which, like the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Rasool Allah, have already bared their teeth. It is also likely to be the province where the Lashkar-e-Taiba's political front, Allah-o-Akbar Tehreek, will emerge strongest. Not surprisingly, Shahbaz will be most concerned about his home ground, as should Sharif. It could be wise to leave the battle for the country for a while, until the party can rebuild its foundations in Punjab.
This is the fourth issue troubling the PML(N). The party has seen several desertions over the past few months, when it became evident that the establishment was determined to dethrone the Sharifs. Till May 2017, more than 46 members are believed to have left the party, with leaders from the lower rung joining the PTI. At this level, the PML(N)'s loss is certainly Imran Khan's gain. Some evidence also suggests that the establishment "persuaded" at least a few of these politicians to shift camp.
However, it is even more threatening that the senior leaders leaving the party are choosing to contest the 25 July General Elections as independent candidates. Among these is Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, one of the most senior PML(N) leaders who had once counseled Sharif against confronting the establishment head on. As a result, the PML(N) is stretched at both rungs, which is bound to affect the morale of party workers and on the conduct of their overall campaigning.
There is one glimmer of hope for Sharif: While the PML(N) is in bad shape, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) is not much better off. Bilawal Bhutto Zardari and his father, former president Asif Ali Zardari, will retain their provincial holdings, primarily because of the continued slide of the once-powerful Muttahida Qaumi Movement. But unlike the PML(N), which can use Sharif's daughter Maryam as she has already proven to be charismatic, the PPP cannot project Bilawal the same way. But this advantage over the PPP is likely to come to use only in future, as any new leader — however astute — needs time to gain ground.
Finally, while Khan's PTI certainly has the most to gain from these tumultuous events, the party has not always had its way. An example would be its loss in the Lodhran bypoll, which was projected as a sure win for the party. Moreover, PTI's induction of some very questionable candidates has diluted Khan's "Mr Clean" image.
All these factors indicate that the PML(N) may still stand a chance. While the party is badly hit and bleeding, its very detractors may help it win but only through the co-option of the independent candidates being fielded by known and unknown elements. The candidates fielded by various extremist groups fall in the latter category.
All signs point to a government that will be sewn together like a patchwork quilt. This cannot be good for anyone, least of all for Pakistanis themselves.
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