Sharif's rivals will vie to exploit his fall

Sharif's rivals will vie to exploit his fall

Sharif's rivals will vie to exploit his fall
Nawaz Sharif, the tycoon and party leader who helped define a turbulent era of Pakistani politics, stepped down as prime minister last Friday after the Supreme Court ruled that corruption allegations had disqualified him.

Coming with less than a year to go in his term, his ouster adds to a grim and long list of civilian governments cut short in Pakistan — including two of his own previous terms as prime minister.

And it will further roil the country’s tumultuous political balance, as his rivals vie to exploit his fall.

When Sharif returned to office in 2013, it was as a widely popular party leader with a deep grudge against the country’s powerful military establishment. He moved quickly to try to establish civilian authority in areas that had long been dominated by generals, especially foreign policy.

But Sharif, 67, is exiting with none of those ambitions realised. The Pakistani military has seldom been able to wield as potent a mix of policy control and popular acclaim as it does now. The fragile democratic system in this nuclear-armed nation of almost 200 million people again appears to be on shaky ground.

And Sharif’s own political legacy stands further tarnished. The governing political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), has now chosen an interim prime minister to replace Sharif. The next general election is scheduled for mid-2018.

Announced by the five-member Supreme Court, the verdict caps more than a year of high political drama, breathless court proceedings and a piercing investigation into the finances of the Sharif family. The charges against Sharif and three of his children — two sons and a daughter — stemmed from disclosures last year in the Panama Papers leak. Those documents revealed that the children owned expensive residential property in London through offshore companies.

The justices, drawing on a constitutional article that allows the courts to disqualify a member of Parliament who is found to be dishonest, said that they were acting because Sharif had tried to conceal his assets. And they ordered the opening of a criminal investigation into the Sharif family.

Watching the courtroom drama was the co­untry’s powerful military, which has traditionally decided the fate of civilian governments. There had been hushed speculation that the court, in coming to its decision, had the tacit, if not overt, backing of powerful generals.

Now, Imran Khan, the opposition politician who has been spearheading the campaign against Sharif since he took power in 2013, stands to gain the most politically from the prime minister’s removal. Khan has doggedly and almost obsessively led the charge against Sharif and rallied much of the public against him through a mix of street agitation and court petitions.

The SC had asked the members of the Sharif family to provide a paper trail of the money they used to buy their London apartments. Investigators found that they were “living beyond their means.” Despite repeated court exhortations, Sharif’s family and its lawyers failed to provide satisfactory documentation, the justices said. Several of the documents they produced were declared fake or insufficient.

A representative of the governing party said that although Sharif was stepping down, the party had “strong reservations” about the verdict and was contemplating “all legal and constitutional means” to challenge it. Sharif has called the inquiry into his family’s finances a conspiracy and has asserted that in his three terms as prime minister he had not been tarred by a major corruption scandal.

The ruling, while expected, leaves undecided the long-term fate of the man who has been a dominating force in Pakistani politics for the better part of three decades. “I did not expect Nawaz Sharif to go scot-free,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent political analyst who is based in Lahore.

“If he has a long-term vision, he will sit back and guide his political party,” Rizvi added. “He and his supporters will portray the court verdict as victimisation and a grave conspiracy involving international powers.”

Sharif’s removal from office throws his political succession plans into disarray. His daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, 43, who was being groomed as his political heir, was also implicated in the case.

Political insiders say there are several possible contenders to replace Sharif as PM in the immediate interim. Names being discussed as include Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, the speaker of the national assembly; Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the minister of petroleum; Khurram Dastgir Khan, the commerce minister; and Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the defence minister.

“Whoever they bring will be a weak prime minister, as Nawaz Sharif would want to have someone who is more or less in line with his thinking,” Rizvi said. For a long-term replacement, though, speculation is focusing on Sharif’s brother Shehbaz, 65, who is the chief minister of Punjab province and a prominent and divisive political figure in his own right. He would first have to take his brother’s Parliament seat in a spot election.

Moral victory

Political analysts say the verdict hands Khan an undeniable political and moral victory, because it was his pressure on the court to take up the Panama Papers case and then render a quick verdict that forced some of the action.

“Imran Khan will be strengthened, but it remains to be seen how he capitalises in Punjab province, which is critical to winning the general elections,” Rizvi said. Punjab, the most populous and prosperous of the country’s four provinces, has been a stronghold of Sharif for decades.

Sharif presided over a period of relative economic stability and was able to complete a few large infrastructure projects while reducing the crippling power outages that have long afflicted Pakistan.
But the stubborn scandal over the London real estate holdings sullied the reputation of his family.

During his most recent tenure, Sharif had an uneven relationship with the military. His overtures of more openness toward India, Pakistan’s long-time foe, backfired as generals spurned his efforts.

“Until the elections, this will lead to a period of political instability,” Amber Rahim Shamsi, a Dawn TV journalist, said of the verdict. “The Sharif political dynasty has somehow managed to survive Pakistan’s rough and bloody politics for over three and a half decades through wheeling and dealing,” Shamsi said. “It is hard to imagine all the family falling like a pack of cards. Nawaz Sharif has a following and could cash in on political martyrdom to stage a comeback.”
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