Prime Minister Sharif's Resignation Spells Uncertainty for Pakistan

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On Friday July 28, the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Prime Minister (PM) Nawaz Sharif from holding public office. The revelations came after months of hearings following the Panama Papers Scandal regarding his and his family’s corruption. While PM Sharif was not named in the leaked documents, his children Maryam, Hassan and Hussain were implicated in property purchases in London conducted via offshore holdings. These were not declared in PM Sharif’s wealth statement. The opposition led by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf party then filed petitions against Sharif and his family in the Supreme Court, which led to months of investigations, allegations and denials. Based on the findings by a special Joint Investigative Team (JIT) created by the Supreme Court in April 2017, a 5 judge bench unanimously ruled that PM Sharif was “not honest” under terms described in the Pakistani constitution. Following the ruling, PM Sharif filed to resign as Prime Minister, while stating his reservations regarding the verdict.  Further, the court called for criminal investigations by the National Accountability Bureau against all accused in the case.

While this development is being touted by the Pakistani opposition and civilians as a landmark decision and an encouraging step towards a corruption free Pakistan, it highlights the problems of judicial overreach and lack of constitutional sanctity for the position of prime minister.

As Pakistan’s 70 years of political history demonstrates, none of Pakistan’s 18 prime ministers have ever served a complete term. Tenures have been cut short by assassinations, military coups, judicial coups and arbitrary presidential dismissals. This event marks PM Sharif’s 3rd incomplete term as prime minister of the country, after his controversial resignation in 1993, and his dismissal in the bloodless coup of 1999. Moreover, Sharif is the second prime minister to have been disqualified by judicial order, the first being ex-Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani who was disqualified in 2012.

The role of the Supreme Court in PM Sharif’s dismissal is a troubling case of judicial overreach. PM Sharif was not found guilty via a criminal trial, but through violation of constitutional provisions under Article 62(1)(f) that demands that members of Parliament be “sagacious, righteous, non-profligate, honest and Ameen.” This provision, established under General Zia ul Haq’s tenure, highlights the fragile security of the position accorded to members of parliament and thus holders of public office, as it subjects them to unrealistically high standards of morality, while enabling their arbitrary dismissal by the judiciary. Given concerns regarding the motives of the judiciary and military in the previous dismissal of PM Gilani, this further raises questions about the motives of various organs of the Pakistani government in Sharif’s dismissal.

Given the interventionist nature of Pakistan’s judiciary, the motives behind the ruling are questionable. The JIT appointed by the SC contained currently serving members from the ISI and the military, which raises potential doubts about the independence of judicial action in this case, given PM Sharif’s anti-establishment rhetoric and tenuous relationship with the military. There is ample evidence of civil-military conflict during PM Sharif’s tenure, such as the role of the military in compelling PM Sharif to dismiss two of his top aides earlier this year. Moreover, speculations surrounding the supposedly apolitical army Chief Qamar Bajwa’s meeting with Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI) party chief Imran Khan, indicate that the military continues to be actively involved in Pakistan’s political affairs. Pakistan’s history of military interventionism means that this may not augur well for the future of civilian democracy.

Future Prospects

The immediate priority is to occupy the vacant Prime Ministerial post. Speculations within the ruling party- the Pakistan Muslim League- Nawaz (PML-N) in the past week centered around PM Sharif’s brother Shehbaz Sharif, Defence Minister Khawaja Asif and Speaker of the National Assembly Sardar Ayaz Sadiq.  Although Minister Asif and Speaker Sadiq would have both been strong candidates, the decision was tipped towards Shehbaz Sharif from the start. On Saturday, Nawaz Sharif announced that the post of interim PM would be held by former Petroleum Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi for 45 days, and that Shehbaz Sharif would run for a seat in the National Assembly to enable his take over as Prime Minister. This was unsurprising, given that Nawaz Sharif and his family hold immense clout within the PML-N.

This scandal may not spell the end of Nawaz Sharif’s political career, as experts point out that he might benefit from taking a back seat and later spinning this issue into one of political martyrdom. Sharif is also planning to challenge the Supreme Court’s decision. While the current verdict doesn’t enable him to lead from the front, he and his family will still have considerable influence on administrative decisions should his party win the next election.

Parties will have to choose a Prime Ministerial candidate for the upcoming elections in 2018. The 2018 contest however, will be a tough one for the PML-N, given the severe blow the Panamagate judgement has dealt to the party’s image. The party’s continued backing of the Sharif family and its denial of guilt, while obvious, has the potential to delegitimize their position among sections of Pakistan’s voters. The PTI and the Jamaat-e-Islami will certainly capitalize on their role in filing the case against Sharif and this will most likely yield electoral benefits for them. However, given that the PML-N currently holds the majority of seats in the National Assembly and still enjoys a strong base of support in Punjab, it may be able to retain power.

The prospect of a military takeover, as ever, remains like an ominous cloud overhead. However, experts, such as Michael Kugelman at the Wilson Center for International Scholars at Washington D.C highlight that public opinion in Pakistan doesn’t currently favour military rule. He further elaborates that given the extensive influence the military already enjoys along with its concern to be positively perceived by civilians, it seems unlikely that a military takeover will take place in the near future. Indian journalist Barkha Dutt at NDTV and Ambassador Husain Haqqani at the Hudson Institute however, highlight the dark side of this influence. They point out that Sharif’s disqualification highlights that the military does not need to take over directly as it can impose its will via other existing institutions of government- in this case, the judiciary.

The verdict in the Panamagate Scandal in Pakistan thus seems to demonstrate the continuation, rather than the disruption, of the disturbing status quo of judicial intervention and military subversion. Corruption is still prevalent. Even the current face of the anti-corruption movement- Imran Khan- has publicly admitted to owning offshore assets for tax evasion purposes. The scandal re-emphasizes the continuing question about Pakistan’s failure to allow strong, democratically elected civilian governments to take root. For Pakistan to succeed as a nation on the world stage, its political parties and institutions of government need to work together to secure the future of democracy in the country.