KABUL — Mian Nawaz Sharif is nothing if not a survivor. The first time he won election as Pakistan’s prime minister, in 1990, he was ejected by the president on corruption charges. The second time, in 1997, he was overthrown by the army and forced into exile. The third time, in 2013, he lasted just over four years, before being ousted Friday by the Supreme Court for dishonesty in office.
But even as his opponents were celebrating victory and heralding the demise of Pakistan’s dynastic, corruption-stained political elite, the 67-year-old politician came roaring back, paving the way over the weekend for his brother to replace him in national elections next year and declaring that he too intended to remain a political force.
“My conscience is clear,” Sharif told cheering legislators from his ruling Pakistan Muslim League-N party in a televised meeting Saturday. “Like a soldier who is ready to lay down his life for his country, I will always defend the rule of law and the supremacy of the constitution. I want you to support me in this struggle.” He continued, “We have to change Pakistan for better. I am no more the prime minister . . . but I do not want my life-long efforts to go to waste.”
Sharif and his associates also moved swiftly to fill the vacuum created by his departure. He named a former cabinet minister, Shahid Abbasi, as temporary prime minister, while his younger brother Shahbaz prepared to leave his post as chief minister of Punjab Province, take over in September for Abbasi, and then run for Parliament with the aim of seeking a five-year term as premier.
The flurry of activity was partly aimed at Sharif’s top opponent, former cricket star Imran Khan, who leads a youthful grassroots party and spearheaded a year-long judicial charge against Sharif that led to his ouster by a high court panel. Khan, 64, is also from Punjab, the most important of Pakistan’s four provinces, and he is considered the only politician who could make fatal inroads into the Sharifs’ longtime grip there.
The Sharifs’ more strategic goal, analysts said, is to keep their political brand — symbolized by a lion in posters at election time — identified with democratic values and personal leadership rather than with the murky financial practices that led to Sharif’s removal.
Nawaz Sharif, whose family is one of the wealthiest in Pakistan, failed to explain convincingly how members of his family paid for offshore properties including luxury London apartments. After numerous hearings and a court-ordered investigation, he was barred from office under a law requiring public officials to be “honest and faithful” with the people.
Within hours of the ruling, the disgraced leader dutifully withdrew from office, a move that showed respect for judicial independence and contrasted sharply with the chaotic institutional and personal struggle in 1999 that led Pakistan’s army chief to seize power from Sharif and keep it for nearly a decade.
“The election campaign has begun, and it will be Sharif’s to lose,” said Moeed Yusuf, a Pakistan expert at the U.S. Institute for Peace. With Sharif still facing possible prosecution for financial misdeeds, Yusuf said, his best chance is to quickly “declare martyrdom” and offer himself as a shadow leader to the party faithful. “Right now they are energized, and if they think his patronage will hold, the party will have a better chance.”
Khan, an equally cagey politician, is also moving fast to turn his supporters’ attention from the courtroom battle to the upcoming election fight, which he has portrayed as a contest between a modernizing country based on justice for all and an entrenched, corrupt system in which political dynasties — chiefly the industrialist Sharif family of Punjab and their rivals, the feudal Bhutto-Zardari clan of Sindh Province —have dominated politics for decades.
On Sunday, Khan headlined a celebratory rally in a large Islamabad parade ground, where thousands of his loyalists danced and sang for hours. Rashid Mehboob, 21, a college student, expressed the idealistic hopes of many supporters who see Khan as a champion of democratic reforms.
“There can’t be more important day for us,” he said. “We have waited since 2013 to see the ouster of corrupt rulers, and today with the blessing of God and our leader’s struggle, we saw this victory. Now we will soon have a clean and honest leader in the prime minister’s office and this country will progress. The days of Nawaz are over. This is the dawn of clean politics in Pakistan and the dawn of Imran Khan’s era.”
Pakistani commentators have been reluctant to declare the Sharifs finished as a political power, however. There is some confusion about whether Nawaz Sharif’s political ban is permanent or temporary, potentially leaving room for him to make yet another comeback. Legal experts have also criticized the high court ruling as too vague and far-reaching, saying that has limited its potential for broader application.
But many Pakistanis agree that the country’s political system — long based on personal patronage, public graft, elite impunity and feudal class stratification — has been permanently shaken by the unprecedented judicial probe and sweeping verdict against a sitting prime minister.
“This is a serious blow to dynastic politics that has been the biggest impediment to the development of democratic institutions and values in the country,” columnist Zahid Hussain wrote in Dawn newspaper. He said that while the court ruling may create a period of political uncertainty and polarization, it is very unlikely to undermine Pakistan’s stability.
Still, the editors of Dawn criticized both Khan and Sharif as having “allowed their political rivalry to drag the country backwards,” and they warned that an ugly electoral fight in the coming months could have dangerous consequences.
“Democracy will not be threatened merely by the exit of Mr. Sharif, nor will it be boosted automatically by the triumphant elevation of Mr. Khan,” they wrote after the ruling. “The two leaders must urgently learn a humility that neither has seemed capable of so far.”
Shaiq Hussain in Islamabad contributed to this report.