Sharif has backed him­self into a cor­ner

The damn­ing court ver­dict gives strong lever­age to the op­po­si­tion to step up the pres­sure on the Pak­istan PM

India Today - - SPECIAL REPORT - ZAHID HUS­SAIN Hus­sain is an Is­lam­abad-based jour­nal­ist and au­thor

Nawaz Sharif may have es­caped be­ing ousted from of­fice, but his predica­ment is far from over. A split judg­ment of the five-mem­ber Supreme Court bench has or­dered fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion into the money trail to off­shore com­pa­nies and the prop­er­ties the Sharif fam­ily owns in Lon­don.

It’s quite a damn­ing rul­ing for the prime min­is­ter with two of the five judges call­ing for his dis­qual­i­fi­ca­tion for not be­ing hon­est. The other three may not have agreed to this ex­treme ac­tion, but there is con­sen­sus that the Sharif fam­ily has failed to pro­vide sub­stan­tive ev­i­dence re­gard­ing the source of the money used to buy ex­pen­sive prop­er­ties in Lon­don. Hence, the need for fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion.

Pak­istan’s top court be­gan hear­ings last year on the pe­ti­tions filed by Im­ran Khan and oth­ers against the prime min­is­ter af­ter the Panama pa­pers leaks re­vealed that the Sharif fam­ily owned sev­eral off­shore com­pa­nies and prop­er­ties in Lon­don’s up­scale neigh­bour­hoods. The leaks gen­er­ated a po­lit­i­cal mael­strom in the coun­try. The court rul­ing came as Sharif en­ters the fi­nal year of his five-year term.

Sharif’s po­lit­i­cal fate will now be de­cided by a joint in­ves­ti­ga­tion team (JIT) to be set up by the Supreme Court. The com­mis­sion, con­sist­ing of var­i­ous civil­ian in­ves­ti­ga­tion or­gan­i­sa­tions and mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence agen­cies, is man­dated to con­clude its probe into the fi­nan­cial scan­dal span­ning two decades and in­volv­ing three gen­er­a­tions of the Sharif fam­ily in just 60 days. For the first time in the coun­try’s his­tory, a sit­ting prime min­is­ter will ap­pear be­fore an in­ves­ti­ga­tion team prob­ing al­le­ga­tions of fi­nan­cial wrong­do­ing. This raises the per­ti­nent ques­tion of whether he should stay in his high of­fice dur­ing the in­ves­ti­ga­tion. Sharif’s po­si­tion is cer­tainly com­pro­mised as he faces an in­quiry into a fi­nan­cial scan­dal with his moral author­ity di­min­ished.

But the prime min­is­ter is de­ter­mined to fight to the end and not suc­cumb to the op­po­si­tion’s pres­sure to step down. His sup­port­ers ap­pear con­fi­dent that they will be able to drag the JIT in­quiry long enough to get close to the elec­tions next year. A ma­jor chal­lenge for a morally and po­lit­i­cally weak prime min­is­ter is to deal with an ex­tremely ag­gres­sive op­po­si­tion. Al­most all the ma­jor op­po­si­tion par­ties seem united on the de­mand for his res­ig­na­tion. Though in­con­clu­sive, the court rul­ing has pro­vided strong lever­age to Sharif’s arch-ri­val, Im­ran Khan, to step up the pres­sure on him.

It’s ob­vi­ous that the grow­ing po­lit­i­cal po­lar­i­sa­tion has put the mil­i­tary lead­er­ship un­der im­mense pres­sure. There is a dan­ger that it could get more deeply in­volved in the cri­sis if the sit­u­a­tion be­comes grave. Ev­ery po­lit­i­cal cri­sis has con­se­quences for the civil-mil­i­tary bal­ance of power. A weak­en­ing of civil­ian author­ity in­vari­ably leads to the mil­i­tary gain­ing more space.

As the po­lit­i­cal stand-off con­tin­ues, op­tions for the two sides are be­com­ing limited. It may be true that a frac­tured op­po­si­tion can­not force the prime min­is­ter to quit through mass ag­i­ta­tion. But it can still cre­ate huge dif­fi­cul­ties for the Sharif govern­ment.

Per­haps it is true that the prime min­is­ter does not face an im­mi­nent threat to his po­si­tion, ei­ther through the court or any op­po­si­tion-led mass move­ment. Yet the con­fi­dence among Sharif’s sup­port­ers may be mis­placed, given the po­lit­i­cal un­cer­tainty trig­gered by the divided rul­ing. Sharif can hang on be­cause of his party’s dom­i­na­tion of the Na­tional Assem­bly and its power base in Pun­jab. But the very per­cep­tion of him be­ing ‘dam­aged goods’ does not por­tend well for the rul­ing party or the fam­ily dy­nasty as the coun­try ap­proaches the next gen­eral elec­tions.

There is some in­di­ca­tion that Sharif may be con­sid­er­ing some other op­tions to keep power within the fam­ily. It is quite pos­si­ble that he will not seek a fourth term, and in­stead, bring for­ward his daugh­ter Maryam Nawaz as the next leader. One pos­i­tive point in the rul­ing for the PML-N is that she has come out un­scathed.

Maryam has long been pro­moted as the heir ap­par­ent. She has vir­tu­ally been run­ning the party and was also in­volved in im­por­tant govern­ment de­ci­sions in the ab­sence of her fa­ther last year. The party has al­ready an­nounced that she will con­test the next elec­tions. For Sharif sup­port­ers, it is the only way to keep power within the fam­ily. But that may also in­ten­sify fam­ily ri­valry. It will not be an easy tran­si­tion with a pow­er­ful un­cle, Shah­baz Sharif , the chief min­is­ter of Pun­jab, in the line of suc­ces­sion too.

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