Written by Katharine Adeney.
This is not the first time that a Pakistani prime minister has been removed by the judiciary. Prime Minister Gilani was removed from office by the Supreme Court for contempt of court (for refusing to request the Swiss authorities to re-open corruption cases against then Pakistan President Zardari). And three prime ministers in the 1990s (including Nawaz Sharif) were removed by presidential decree. But this is a watershed moment in Pakistani politics none the less.
It’s worth briefly recapping on the events that led Sharif being elected to his third time as prime minister. Elections were held in 2013 – the first time that a civilian led government had completed its five year term in Pakistan’s history. As I wrote at the time ‘[t]ired of poor governance, multiple corruption scandals and a severe energy crisis; voters voted with their feet.’ In that election, Nawaz Sharif benefitted from his image as a man who gets things done, reminding voters of his success in delivering major infrastructure projects, particularly in fixing Pakistan’s huge energy crisis. Energy continues to be a big issue in Pakistan, and it is no surprised that the CPEC has as one of its priorities: energy infrastructure development.
Although the removal of corrupt politicians is good for a democratic system, massive instability and the weakening of political parties who have just begun to stand up to the military is not.
Since Sharif’s election however, he has been dogged by military backed protests – led by Canadian clerics as well as former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan – and has had his wings clipped by the military-led Establishment, despite positive developments in the operation of formal democratic institutions. The promised peace dividend and increased trade with neighbouring India as a result of his election has not appeared.
What was the catalyst to today’s events?
Just over a year ago, in April 2016, documents emerged implicating senior members of the Sharif family, including Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, with holdings in off-shore companies. These documents, known as the Panama Papers were seized on by Sharif’s political adversary, Imran Khan, as proof of extraordinary corruption. With calls from all parties, including the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), for Nawaz Sharif to step down, petitions were eventually filed in the Supreme Court to disqualify Nawaz Sharif and others from public office. That the PPP joined calls for Sharif to step down was significant as previously the two main parties had been united against military attempts to remove Sharif.
The eventual verdict of the Supreme Court, delivered in April 2017, was a split one. It neither exonerated nor condemned Sharif, but ordered that Sharif and his children face investigation by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT). The JIT’s remit was to determine whether Nawaz Sharif, his immediate family, and some other associates had amassed wealth that was beyond their known sources of income. The JIT submitted its 275 page report to the Supreme Court after only two months. The quick completion of the report, as well as the fact that military intelligence officers were among its six members, surprised seasoned overseas Pakistani commentators such as William Milam in The Friday Times. Many will be quick to see the military’s hand behind the report’s quick completion and conclusions. Last Friday the Supreme Court reserved judgement on the case, but this morning announced that Prime Minister Sharif and Finance Minister Ishaq Dar were disqualified from office. Sharif immediately announced his resignation even as he strongly contested the verdict.
Who will be the successor? Two likely scenarios
- The first scenario is that an interim Prime Minister will be declared, someone who is not that powerful within the ruling party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PMLN), as a stop gap until Sharif’s brother, Shahbaz Sharif, currently chief minister of the Punjab, can take over (he is not currently a member of the National Assembly). Shahbaz is a seasoned political operator, with a reputation for delivering major infrastructure projects. As a Sharif, this keeps control of the PMLN within the Sharif family (and parties in Pakistan are primarily the creatures of their creators) although it may mean that Maryam, Sharif’s daughter and a rising political star, is shunted out in favour of Shahbaz Sharif’s son. The main factor mitigating against such a scenario is that Shahbaz Sharif has also been tainted by the Panama allegation, and the PMLN may not be willing to risk a second Prime Minister being dismissed by the Supreme Court. However, he was not one of the Sharif family members named by the Supreme Court as being part of a further investigation into assets. It is of course possible that the Sharif’s will see their interests best served by maintaining their strong power-base in Punjab – which returns the majority of seats to the National Assembly of Pakistan.
- The second scenario is that a more seasoned political operator will come to the scene – someone such as Khawaja Asif, the current defence minister. Although this avoids the problems associated with a continuation of the Sharif ascendancy in terms of the Panama allegations, this would challenge the whole way that the PMLN has been organised to date. Commentators rightly question whether the PMLN will be able to unite around a non Sharif candidate. Therefore whether it is Khawaja Asif (notorious for prickly relations with the military) or Ayaz Sadiq (the current speaker of the National Assembly), the question of whether the PMLN would be able to hold together or will splinter into rival factions before the 2018 elections is a real one. Yesterday, the Interior Minister, Chaudhry Nisar announced he would stand down from politics when the Panama verdict was announced. While he said it was because his heart was no longer in politics because of the wheeling and dealing, it is possible he could be a future leader of an alternative political party, given that he was frozen out of decision making by Sharif in recent weeks.
What does this say for Pakistani democracy?
Corruption in Pakistani politics is not new. Although the corruption cases Musharraf pursued against Benazir Bhutto and her husband Asif Ali Zardari were politically motivated, they were widely believed to be true and many Pakistani politicians appear to have amassed wealth beyond their known means. This includes the politician who doggedly pursued the case against Sharif – Imran Khan. Whether this case will set a precedent that will come to haunt Imran Khan in the future remains to be seen. Although the removal of corrupt politicians is good for a democratic system, massive instability and the weakening of political parties who have just begun to stand up to the military is not. This story is still unfolding, but, as in Pakistan’s past, weak politicians and a weak party system will only strengthen the military.
Katharine Adeney is Professor of Politics at the University of Nottingham and Director of the Institute of Asia and Pacific Studies. She has published widely on both Pakistan and India. She tweets @KatAdeney Image credit: CC by Department for International Development/Flickr.