Game Over for Sharif

By: Amir Zia
Published: August 1, 2017
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Is Nawaz Sharif’s unanimous disqualification, by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court on corruption charges, an attack on the country’s faltering democracy or does it strengthen the system?

Is the ousted prime minister ‘struggling’ for the supremacy of Parliament, or does he just want to perpetuate his power and dynastic politics?

Does holding corrupt public office-holders accountable undermine civilian rule or ensure better governance? Has the Supreme Court gone beyond its mandate by disqualifying a sitting-prime minister, or has it written a glorious chapter in Pakistan’s judicial history?

These are some of the vital questions at the heart of Pakistan’s lingering political crisis amidst a raging debate about corruption, accountability, balance of power among key State institutions and, above all, the future of this dysfunctional democracy.

Sharif and his camp are trying to shift the national focus away from the Panama Case – in which the former prime minister and his three children had been cited for amassing illegal wealth and property abroad – and move the national attention to self-serving orchestrated issues, including the alleged threat to democracy and civilian rule.

And in doing this, they have unleashed a sustained, direct and indirect, propaganda campaign targeting the judiciary and the Pakistan Armed Forces – the only two institutions that have managed to maintain their autonomy and deny the narrow, personal ambitions of Sharif to rule Pakistan as a quasi-dictatorship.

The ruling party is also trying to create confusion by peddling the line that Sharif stands disqualified not because of the Panama Case or corruption, but on what its leadership terms a lesser charge of not disclosing assets deposited in his account as the chairman of a Dubai-based company, Capital FZE, in his 2013 nomination papers.

Sharif and his apologists are using multiple lines of defending their stance: The decision to disqualify the prime minister was taken much before the Supreme Court handed down its verdict. By this, they are implying and alleging that the honourable Court acted on the dictate of some other force. This allegation, itself, is tantamount to contempt of court and demands immediate action.

While Sharif and his camp remain reluctant to name the force, which allegedly orchestrated prime minister’s ouster through the court, they do point fingers towards the Pakistan Armed Forces, camouflaging their charge by using the word ‘establishment.’ However, some of Sharif’s allies and supporters openly blame the Army for conspiring to remove Sharif on conventional and social media.

This blame game strategy attempts to tarnish the image of the army and is stoking and intensifying tension within the institutions despite all the restraint shown by the military leadership. But if the army bashing by the Sharif camp and the tiny segment of liberals, a handful of former leftists and activists of foreign-funded NGOs continues, it has the potential of sucking the military into the political fray, despite the fact that the military leadership has time and again made it clear that it wants to uphold the Constitution and rule of law in the country.

There remains a possibility of sharp fissures not just within the ruling party, but also within the Sharif clan due to a power struggle

Sharif and his allies also argue that the Supreme Court did not have jurisdiction in this case and it acted beyond its mandate. This line of argument is being aggressively advanced by prominent lawyer and rights activist Asma Jahangir, though Sharif and his family themselves accepted the Supreme Court’s jurisdiction in the case.

All the main lawyers’ organisations, including the Supreme Court Bar Association of Pakistan, also support the Supreme Court verdict against Sharif, saying that it acted in line with the law and the Constitution.

Last, but not least, Sharif and his defenders term the prime minister’s disqualification an attack on democracy and portray him as a ‘political martyr.’ Sadly, this equates democracy with one of the country’s most corrupt political dispensations, which itself is damaging for the system.

The bedrock of democracy is all about checks and balances and holding public office-holders accountable if they breach trust, use their politics for financial gains or indulge in corruption. Our parliamentary system lacks an auto-mechanism and powers to hold the prime minister or other top government officials accountable. The Supreme Court had to take up the petitions filed by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf-led opposition, to dispense justice following agitation and campaigns.

The Supreme Court, while ordering the formation of the Joint Investigation Team on the Panama Papers Case, highlighted the dichotomy thus; “in normal circumstances, such exercise could be conducted by the NAB (National Accountability Bureau), but when its Chairman appears to be indifferent and even unwilling to perform his part, we are constrained to look elsewhere and therefore, constitute a Joint Investigation Team…”

The inability of the NAB and other investigative agencies to hold the high and the mighty of the system accountable, stems from the fact that they are not independent and autonomous bodies, but under the thumb of the executive – read the prime minister. This anomaly calls for reforms and empowering the regulatory and investigation authorities, which is nowhere on the agenda of the Parliament.

However, the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) instead of critically reviewing the flaws and weaknesses of the system and assessing the past and present conduct of its leader, Nawaz Sharif, has opted for a confrontational path. This comes as no surprise given that the PML-N is basically run as a family enterprise or fiefdom by the ‘House of Sharifs’ rather than as a democratic party. Saving the king for them is more important than saving the system and the country.

Sharif and his supporters are raring to defy the Supreme Court and undermine institutions through a sustained propaganda campaign at every available platform, including the mainstream and new media, and the show of street power by mobilising its support-base especially in central Punjab.

Sharif’s anxiety and desperation to take on the institutions is understandable. After his disqualification, if the Accountability Court concludes the corruption references under the direct supervision of a Supreme Court Judge, it will be a real end not just for Sharif’s politics, but will shake up his vast business empire that includes ill-gotten assets, wealth and properties acquired in various countries.

It will also destroy his grand ambition and design to thrust his daughter Maryam Safdar forward as his political heir. Looking ahead, this precedent will ensure that other corrupt public office-holders – regardless of their party affiliations – also be held accountable for their loot and plunder of the national exchequer.

According to the Supreme Court July 28 verdict – which disqualified Sharif from the National Assembly and the prime minister’s office – the references to be filed by the National Accountability Bureau before the Accountability Court are:

  • References relating to the Avenfield properties, London against Nawaz Sharif, Maryam, Hussain Nawaz, Hassan Nawaz, and Capt (retired) Muhammad Safdar.
  • Reference in connection with Azizia Steel and Hill Metal Establishment against Sharif and his two sons, Hasan and Hussain.
  • Reference against Finance Minister Ishaq Dar for possessing assets and funds beyond his known means of income.
  • Supplementary reference(s) can also be filed if and when any other assets are discovered.

One should not be surprised if Sharif and his family appear prepared to go to any length to get out of this looming implosion of their politics and businesses.  Attempts to manipulate the national narrative and confronting institutions – the judiciary and the armed forces – even at the cost of the national interest indicate their desperation and frustration.

However, a factor which favours Sharif – in his third ousting from power – is that he has managed to install Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as a compliant prime minister in his place, along with a bloated federal cabinet of loyalists and lackeys.

The bitter political impasse, due to the Sharif factor, has been bedevilling and paralysing Pakistani politics for decades

With the federal government still in his pocket, and Punjab spearheaded by younger brother Shahbaz, the disgraced prime minister believes that he will be able to turn the tide and stage a comeback despite being thrown out of the ring. In his previous two removals from power in 1993 and 1999, Sharif did not have the comfort of friendly federal and Punjab provincial governments.

The PML-N has also remained intact so far – thanks to the neutrality of the military leadership. But party sources maintain that many lawmakers tried to consult the army leaders with offers to switch sides or form a forward bloc. But the military leadership stood committed to its word of supporting the system.

In coming days, as pressure mounts on Sharif because of the pending corruption references and pressure from the political opposition, there remains a possibility of sharp fissures not just within the ruling party, but also within the Sharif clan due to a power struggle. Shahbaz is likely to try to get out of the shadow of his big brother sooner than later.

The accountability and disqualification of Sharif, in fact, is the first good omen for democracy and the system. Unlike in the past, Parliament continues to function as before and has not been sent packing. There has been a smooth transition as a new leader of the house was elected.

If the political parties, including the ruling party, show maturity from here on, they can strengthen the system further themselves, by introducing reforms that should include putting in place proper check and balances on the powers of the prime minister and ensuring that he remains accountable to the institutions rather than acting as a civilian dictator, which unfortunately this office has now transformed into.

The fate of democracy must not be tied to a few individuals and their families

The reforms could include reviving Article 58 (2) B of the Constitution with more institutional checks and balances to prevent its abuse and allowing lawmakers to vote in line with their conscience pro or against the party and leadership line.

Pakistan has suffered enough from the prolonged stretch of political instability, uncertainty and confrontation since Nawaz Sharif sailed into power in 2013, mainly triggered by his penchant to undermine institutions, personalise decision-making including on crucial foreign policy matters, and the desire to settle scores with political rivals, especially the former military strongman General (retired) Pervez Musharraf.

Because of these myopic choices, pressing national issues – a troubled and debt-ridden economy, the challenge of extremism and terrorism and grave external threats on both the eastern and western frontiers – have remained ignored. If this situation continues, it will be damaging for the State. Therefore, saner minds and common sense must prevail.

The bitter political impasse, due to the Sharif factor, has been bedevilling and paralysing Pakistani politics for decades. Ending this impasse and removing the source of conflict is vital if Pakistan is to move forward.

For this, it is necessary that the accountability process not just continue, but be further strengthened and institutionalised. The fate of democracy must not be tied to a few individuals and their families. Our political parties must come out of the shadow of dynastic politics.

Our civilian leadership has to show political maturity and sagacity to move towards a broad national consensus on key domestic and external issues.

If they fail to do so on a war footing in their own enlightened self-interest, there will be demands to reset the entire system sooner rather than later. And the demand to reset the system will be justified as the State can ill-afford this prolonged state of political anarchy, chaos and a directionless Pakistan.

About the Author
Amir Zia
has worked for some of the leading national and internal media organizations in a career spanning more than 25 years and is counted among some of the highly regarded professionals of Pakistan’s media industry