Yet another prime minister fell in Pakistan last week, marking the sixth elected leader to fail to serve out his five-year term since 2002. This time, it was perennial political survivor Nawaz Sharif, in his third go-round on the post. Deposed by an army general in 1999 and fired by the president in 1993, Sharif is no stranger to the political wilderness — he has braved it twice and come back stronger both times.
His latest troubles however may be decidedly more serious. The legal basis for his disqualification is being contested by his supporters on several grounds. But the core failure to disclose receivable assets from a foreign company is uncontested. Sharif may never be able to hold public office in Pakistan again.
Given Pakistan’s history of military dictatorship, there have been natural questions about what lies behind Sharif’s ouster. The fates of plenty of Pakistani prime ministers have been tragic. Founding father Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated in 1951; Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was deposed by a military dictator and hanged in 1979; and his daughter, Benazir Bhutto, was murdered by terrorists in 2007. But Sharif’s exit isn’t tragic, unless we count hubris and incompetence as tragedy. Nor, alas, is it a blow against Pakistan’s rampant corruption.
Sharif failed to make a credible case both in the law courts and in the court of public opinion. When the Panama Papers first came out, naming members of his family as holding offshore wealth, Sharif could have plotted a course that would not only have preserved his tenure as prime minister but also secured better financial disclosure and transparency in Pakistan.
Instead, he chose a perplexing strategy of playing the victim, deploying his anointed successor (his daughter Maryam) to manage an offense-first media strategy and using surrogates to suggest to anyone who would listen that the army was once again plotting to get rid of him. Perhaps this would have been a fine approach to take in the 1990s, when leaders like Sharif enjoyed a relative monopoly over information. It was suicidal in 2016-2017, with each clumsy statement, every legal misstep, and each demonstration of haughty self-importance picked apart by Pakistani millennials, both in newsrooms and on smartphones across the country.
The case against the Sharifs was buttressed not by the evidence brought against them by petitioners involved in the case but by the incredibly incompetent presentation of facts by the Sharif family in the courts, in parliament, and in the public sphere. It wasn’t the corruption that got Sharif so much as the cover-up, and that has meant that the focus has been squarely on him and his clan — and not on plugging the holes in Pakistan’s vast and leaky public sector. Like the drama unfolding in Washington, there have been a host of supporting actors in this political thriller — including representatives of the military and intelligence services on the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) that helped unearth some of the financial dirt that has been used to tar and feather the Sharifs.
At each stage, however, the rocket fuel that powered Sharif’s crash landing was his own incompetence, stemming from his original failure to properly declare his income and assets to the electoral commission. This was followed by a perplexing decision to claim victimhood, followed by comical differences between his official account and that of various relatives. A laughable effort to explain the family fortune through contacts in Middle Eastern royalty has further eroded his credibility.
But neither the Sharifs nor their tormentors in the political opposition nor the JIT has made any effort to expand the debate about how to genuinely reform the public sector. There has been no debate about ending the highly litigious culture in which the poor must suffer the burden of so-called justice while the rich often evade it. Sharif’s disqualification has everything to do with Sharif himself and the fights between him and his equally power-hungry opponents. It has little to do with wider questions of justice or fairness or corruption.
Yet there is a silver lining. While this isn’t an end to Pakistani elites’ corruption, it’s not a blow to democracy either. Sharif loyalists will be at pains to pretend that the ruling strikes at the heart of representative government. The truth is that Pakistan’s voracious and frequently interrupted democracy has sprawled and flourished in the last decade. Elements of that democracy have been on display throughout the Sharif case.
First, regulatory freedoms and technological progress have created a media that ranks as among the freest in the Muslim world and possibly beyond. Religion remains dangerous territory, but politically, virtually anything is fair game. Pakistani news channels, newspapers, and social media are rife not only with real stories of political corruption but also fake ones. The public eye in Pakistan today is an unforgiving, untiring beast that never sleeps. Some of the most relentless probing of the Sharifs did not take place in the court of law but on an array of nightly news channels — some with an anti-Sharif agenda that dates back to much before the Panama case and some borne out of a genuine disgust with the way Sharif handled the situation.
Second, the 2013 election saw the entry of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) into the country’s political mainstream. For decades, Pakistan veered dangerously toward becoming a two-party democracy in a system not built for it, with Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan Peoples Party and Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League. The PTI represents a valid third force in democratic Pakistan. Led by Imran Khan, a hugely popular and narcissistic former cricketing hero, the PTI has mobilized millions of young urban voters and changed the political culture for good (or bad, depending on your allegiances). It was the PTI’s pointed threat of agitation to pursue corruption allegations related to the Panama Papers leak that forced the Supreme Court to step in and tackle the case.
And that brings us to perhaps the most crucial factor — a muscular and empowered judiciary. Between 2007 and 2009, the political parties that are squabbling for power today came together to help reinstate a chief justice deposed by former military dictator Pervez Musharraf. That hard-won judicial independence has been hard at work since, with the Supreme Court going from strength to strength, activist justices being balanced out by less proactive ones, and judgments that have earned accolades at home and abroad.
In decades past, the Supreme Court might not have had the gall to dismiss a sitting prime minister; last week, the bench axed Sharif with a unanimous 5-0 verdict. Critics are now rightly calling for the same ferocious independence to be applied to cases in which other politicians are vulnerable to disqualification and in which other officeholders of the state, including judges and army officers, are held to account. But, for starters, the scalp of a prime minister with a substantial mandate is not a bad beginning.
The one oft-employed (and often legitimate) explanation for big political events in Pakistan is the machinations of the ever powerful military establishment, and Sharif’s allies are already blaming the army. But Sharif can’t pin the guilt on the generals. The military didn’t need to cut him down to size because in four years he had done very little, if anything, to challenge its primacy on important issues like India and Afghanistan. Also, the military did not fabricate the Panama Papers nor did it force the Sharifs to present a mind-numbingly poor legal defense of their ill-begotten wealth.
The fact is that while Sharif’s dismissal will no doubt cause elation among many in Pakistan’s powerful security establishment, the army had not lost any power to Sharif that it now needs to take back. In fact, his biggest flaw might not have been his poor financial reporting, or his blundering defense, but that he wasted a generational opportunity to alter the balance of power between civilians and the military. Much has changed in Pakistan since the first time Sharif was dismissed from office in 1993, but that disequilibrium remains. And as he leaves the prime minister’s residence for a third time — and almost certainly his last — Sharif has to shoulder some of the blame for that.
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