What a mighty fall of the great. In the Panama Case verdict, the House of Sharif, Pakistan’s first family, has been ousted from the power-equation. This is a major blow to Nawaz Sharif’s 35-year political career and legacy. His dismissal will negatively affect India-Pakistan bilateral ties, civil-military relations, and the fragile democratic process in Pakistan.
Sharif has not only lost power by dint of a life-time disqualification from holding public office, he is also facing criminal references which can result in imprisonment. Even if he avails the Presidential pardon to commute his sentence under Article 45 of the Constitution, it will not alter the status of his disqualification. Legally, the Presidential pardon applies only to commutation of a sentence, not to disqualification. In Sharif’s case, his failure, in the light of Article 62-1 (F) of the Constitution, to disclose the un-withdrawn salary of AED 10,000 dirhams from Capital FZE, a Dubai-based company, in his 2013 nomination papers has led to his disqualification.
So, what does it mean for the current democratic process in Pakistan, the next general elections expected in 2018, and more importantly, for Nawaz Sharif’s political career? Is it the end of the road for him? Or, will the ruling Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) recover from this political debacle?
Ironically, Nawaz Sharif became the victim of articles 62 and 63 of the 1973 Constitution whose removal his party opposed during the drafting of the 18th Constitutional Amendment. The military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq introduced the mentioned constitutional clauses in the 1980s which expect public representatives to be sadiq (truthful) and amin (trustworthy).
Sharif is the first prime minister to be dismissed from office under this law. Additionally, he is the only political leader to be elected thrice as prime minister, with each instance his five-year term being cut short due to one allegation or another. In fact, none of the prime ministers of Pakistan, barring the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, has ever completed their full term in office.
In Sharif’s first term (1990-93), then-president Ghulam Ishaq Khan ousted him on corruption allegations using Article 58-2 (B) of the constitution. On the second occasion (1997-99), then-military chief General (Retired) Pervez Musharraf toppled his government. This time (2013-17), a five-member Supreme Court bench unanimously dismissed him based on the report of the Joint Investigation Team (JIT).
Arguably, the Supreme Court’s decision has put the long-term political future of the Sharif political dynasty in peril given that the judges have directed the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the country’s central anti-corruption agency, to file references against his daughter Maryam as well. Maryam had been tipped to be his political heir. If the outcome of references against Maryam is negative, then the power dynamics within the House of Sharif will permanently shift from Nawaz Sharif to his younger brother Shahbaz Sharif whom Nawaz has named as his successor (although Shahbaz will first have to resign as Punjab chief minister and get elected to parliament via a by-election).
Sharif's political career has entered the twilight zone. The next few months will decide whether he will survive politically and what will be his political legacy. For now, his role will transform from being the king to kingmaker. He will continue to pull the power strings from behind the scenes.
In the public’s perception, Sharif’s political standing has been severely damaged. His ouster has created a plethora of legal and political challenges for the PML-N, which has been built around Sharif’s persona and his family. The current situation has left PML-N in a catch-22 situation. At this juncture, the PML-N can neither abandon Sharif nor can it keep him. He has simultaneously become an asset and liability for his own party.
Following Sharif’s dismissal, the PML-N is promoting a victimhood narrative by indirectly blaming the deep state to gain public sympathy.
The PML-N needs Nawaz Sharif to ensure unity in the party, continuity of policies, and the completion of the five-year term and ongoing development and energy projects. Sharif’s absence can result in serious differences between the senior leaders, which will negatively affect the government's performance, leading to policy paralysis, defections, and internal power struggles. All these factors are bad omens ahead of the 2018 general elections.
But, at the same time, association with a legally dented, politically bruised, and morally tainted Nawaz Sharif may cost PML-N dearly in the upcoming elections. How the party navigates its course of action will be critical for its future. If history is anything to go by, Musharraf became a liability for the Pakistan Muslim League Quaid-i-Azam (PML-Q) in the 2008 elections after he took on the superior judiciary under the former chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Similarly, the former President and the Co-Chairman of Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), Asif Ali Zardari, became a liability for his party in the 2013 parliamentary elections.
Clearly, Imran Khan is the major and obvious beneficiary of these legal and political challenges for Nawaz Sharif and his party. His disqualification has created a political opening for Khan’s party, the Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) in Punjab. If PTI can capitalize on these political gains and translate them into an electoral advantage, it will give PML-N tough competition in the 2018 elections. In the urban centers of Punjab such as Lahore, Rawalpindi, and Faisalabad, the anti-incumbency factor and corruption charges will dent PML-N’s vote bank among the educated middle- and upper-middle classes.
One thing is certain, until the next general elections, Pakistani politics will remain turbulent, tumultuous, and confrontational. The Supreme Court’s decision to dismiss the PM has come at a time when it is also hearing disqualification petitions filed by the PML-N against PTI head Imran Khan and general secretary Jehangir Tarin. The ruling party will exert pressure on the superior court to expedite these cases. The demands from the government will also come to the fore to initiate similar judicial proceedings against other politicians and influential personalities — including some judges and former generals — whose names had also been mentioned in the Panama Papers.
At the same time, there are several unresolved issues, such as electoral reforms, redrawing of electoral constituencies in the light of the new census, and the appointment of a neutral caretaker setup ahead of the 2018 elections. These unsettled issues can lead to political gridlock arising out of disputes and disagreement between the government and opposition parties.
removal will negatively affect civil-military relations in Pakistan. During the
Panama Case investigations, which had two officers from the Inter Services
Intelligence (ISI) and the Military Intelligence (MI) in the JIT, the PML-N
questioned presence of the security agencies in the JIT. The ruling party
considers the PM’s disqualification as a soft coup in which military backed the
Supreme Court. Following Sharif’s dismissal, the PML-N is promoting a victimhood
narrative by indirectly blaming the deep state to gain public sympathy. This
kind of politicking will keep the civil-military ties tense for the foreseeable
His disqualification is not good news for India-Pakistan relations as well. Improving ties with India was a major focus of Sharif’s regional policy. Not only did he want to improve bilateral ties with India, but he also wanted to enhance them through economic and diplomatic engagements. In the coming months, the PML-N will be occupied with internal political challenges, such as the power transition and consolidating its position and battles with political rivals. In such a situation, foreign policy will firmly remain in the hands of the military establishment. So, the status quo will prevail on bilateral ties with India.
Notwithstanding the merits and demerits of the Supreme Court’s decision, it is a major blow to Pakistan’s fragile democratic process, which will remain procedural, not substantive. The democratic process will revolve around elections and power transition; however, institutionalization of democratic norms and supremacy of the civilian institution will remain elusive in Pakistan.