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
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.