Nawaz Sharif's Corruption Scandal Highlights Pakistani Military's Continued Strength

This week, the Pakistani Supreme Court began hearings that will determine whether Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif will keep his job amidst a sensational corruption scandal. Last year, the leaked Panama Papers revealed that PM Sharif’s children owned luxurious apartments in London through offshore companies. Seizing on the opportunity, political opponents like Imran Khan quickly claimed the funds used to buy the properties were gained illicitly, and that Sharif should resign and be charged with corruption. In response to these claims, the Pakistani Supreme Court commissioned a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) to examine the allegations and make recommendations. Last week, the JIT released its findings, stating, “there exists a significant disparity between the wealth declared by the respondents and the means through which the respondents had generated income from known or declared sources,” and advocating that Sharif and his children be tried for their crimes.

Embroiled directly in the scandal is Sharif’s daughter Maryam, viewed by many as her father’s political successor. In order to clear herself of any wrongdoing, Maryam released records from 2006 that supposedly demonstrated she did not own the London properties. However, the Calibri font used in the document was not commercially available until 2007, leading many to conclude she illegally falsified the paperwork. Now dubbed “Fontgate,” this scandal has the opportunity to undermine civilian leadership in Pakistan and reassert the military’s status as the country’s ascendant political power.

While it is possible the Sharif family engaged in corruption, the maneuver is largely a byproduct of the Pakistani military trying to reassert its power over the country. Historically, the Pakistani military has undermined democratic and civilian leadership at every opportunity to perpetuate its own power. As a result, in Pakistan’s 70-year existence, there has never been a regular transfer of power between two prime ministers; all leaders have been dismissed, resigned, assassinated, or overthrown in a coup.

In his early days as a politician, Nawaz Sharif began as a “protégé” of military leader and former Pakistani President General Zia ul-Haq. However, over time his relationship with the military deteriorated significantly. During his second term as prime minister in 1999, PM Sharif planned a move to force army chief Pervez Musharraf into retirement. However, the plan backfired, and Musharraf loyalists in the Pakistani military marched from Rawalpindi to Islamabad to depose Sharif from office. After the coup, Sharif was first sentenced to life in prison, and then exiled to Saudi Arabia, where he remained until returning to Pakistan in 2007.

After returning to office in 2013, PM Sharif’s relationship with the military has remained tenuous. This year, his volatile affiliation with the military boiled over into the press, after members of his administration leaked word of a meeting where the civilian government lambasted military leaders for their hesitance to cut ties completely with Islamist groups. The military responded quickly and harshly, temporarily banning the article’s author from leaving the country and removing Pervez Rashid as information minister. Although Sharif fired two aides that supposedly facilitated the leaks, the military deemed his gesture insufficient, publicly defying his authority and challenging his leadership abilities.

In this context, the corruption scandal takes on a whole different light; instead of a well-intentioned attempt to eradicate corruption and stabilize Pakistan’s political system, it can be viewed as a power play by the military to discredit a long-time rival. The fact that the JIT contained members from Pakistan’s Military Intelligence (MI) and Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) organizations – Brig. Kamram Khurzheed and Brig. (retd) Nauman Saeed – demonstrates the complicated entanglement between Pakistan’s military, judicial and political systems. Furthermore, it indicates there are few effective checks and balances that stop the military from extending its influence into politics.

Thus, the Fontgate scandal illustrates the immense power the Pakistani military still holds; if Sharif was still aligned with the military, corruption charges would never have been considered. While Pakistan’s new army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa has been described as “apolitical,” when threatened by the civilian leadership it manufactures a coup or magnifies a scandal to keep the government weak and turn popular opinion against democratically elected leaders. It is essential to institute a fair political system in Pakistan, and the Sharif family must be punished if it broke the law. However, allowing the military to act with impunity and slowly demolish the civilian government is not the best way to accomplish this feat.