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Nawaz Sharif was forced to resign as Pakistan’s prime minister last month when the country’s Supreme Court disqualified him from holding public office after a corruption inquiry into his alleged involvement in the Panama Papers affair.
Although Sharif was not named in the Panama Papers leak, it was alleged that three of his children were owners of off-shore companies suspected of money laundering. Sharif himself denies all allegations.
Some have argued that the removal of an elected prime minister by the judiciary is not good for the future of the country. The traditional charge has always been that the military and the ‘deep state’ always act to remove elected officials and that, once again, the biggest beneficiary of this has been the army.
However, this narrative is somewhat dated, for there are those who suggest that the prime minister’s removal by a court is definitely good for the country and its institutions.
Prominent Pakistani intellectuals, who in the past opposed the military, this time argue that this move sets a good precedent and that it is about time the real issue of governance and accountability comes to the fore.
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the military has not removed an elected prime minister. The resignation came, instead, after pressure from the civic opposition and a judiciary which was prepared to act to end Sharif’s tenure.
This ruling is also unique as the military refrained from interfering or influencing the process; the Supreme Court and its top judges were all appointed by Nawaz himself when he came to office in 2013. Along with the judges, the Joint Investigation Team was dominated by civilian authorities, including the National Accountability Bureau, the Federal Investigation Agency and the Intelligence Bureau, with Military Intelligence and the Inter-Services Intelligence making up the only two military authorities requested to come on board by the Supreme Court itself.
For the first time in Pakistan’s history, the military has not removed an elected prime minister. The resignation came, instead, after pressure from the civic opposition
Pakistan’s judiciary has grown in strength over the past decade. It has now established a pattern of acting independently of the military, and of having its rulings respected by the military. The former military ruler, President Pervez Musharraf, was ousted when he intervened and removed the Chief Justice in 2008.
In addition, his generals did not back Musharraf when he was faced with a resurgent Supreme Court. Similarly, this time, the generals kept out and let the courts handle the procedure.
Pakistan’s main political parties have historically been feudal and dynastical; they have always thrived on nepotism and lacked accountability. The baton has passed from father to daughter in the Pakistan People Party (PPP), and in the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) the Sharif family has dominated so much that it is now actually named the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz group.
The opposition party, the Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaaf, led by former Pakistan cricket captain Imran Khan, has accused the Sharif family of running the country and the party like a kingdom – almost half a dozen family members are in the cabinet or other leading positions.
The allegation that the country and the party was a family concern was swiftly vindicated only a day after Nawaz’s resignation, when it was announced that his brother, Shahbaz, would be nominated to become the country’s prime minister after an interim transitional period.
And as if this is not enough, evidence suggests that Shahbaz’s son, Hamza, will likely become Chief Minister of Punjab, taking over as the father moves from the hot seat in Lahore to the capital of Islamabad.
The case for Shahbaz taking over has been strongly made, given his own international reputation as a good statesman and his good ties with world leaders, such as Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Indeed, the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor has significantly boosted Shahbaz’s relationship with Beijing and he has taken multiple tours of China to discuss infrastructure deals.
However, despite his brother’s backing, there have been calls from within his party for Shahbaz not to be the automatic choice as heir apparent. Punjab Rana Sanaullah has come out in opposition to Shahbaz’s candidacy as the new prime minister.
Meanwhile, an interim prime minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbassi, has been elected to fill the void until Shahbaz becomes eligible by standing in a by-election for the National Assembly created by Nawaz’s newly vacated seat. It was almost a given until recently that Shahbaz would take over within a month or two once he won his brother’s seat. Yet it now seems that Abbassi wants to set his own path.
Corruption is not new in Pakistan; in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, Pakistan comes a lowly 116th out of 176 countries. Transparency International gives Pakistan a 32 out of 100, with 0 being ‘highly corrupt’ and 100 ‘very clean’.
The removal of the prime minister will put pressure on Pakistan’s elite as well as empowering the international community to demand that Pakistan govern itself better
Governance has been severely affected over decades by endemic corruption, and politicians are routinely accused by the courts of systematically looting the state’s coffers. A New York Times report in 1998 uncovered the alleged embezzlement of millions of dollars by the Bhutto and Zardari families.
And former Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari – now co-chairperson of the PPP – is known internationally as ‘Mr 10%’ for his alleged practices while in office.
However, the removal of the prime minister will put pressure on Pakistan’s elite as well as empowering the international community to demand that Pakistan govern itself better.
Still, there is still some way to go before the rule of law is restored. For although one prime minister has been removed, his party will be allowed to govern until the end of its term next year. Much now will depend on the party’s own self-restraint if Pakistan is to see the back of feudal nepotism and corrupt political life.
Banner image: A man reads about the disqualification of Nawaz Sharif by the Supreme Court. Courtesy of PA Images.
The views expressed in this Commentary are those of the author, and do not reflect the views of RUSI or any other institution.