Pakistan’s democracy reels from Nawaz Sharif’s removal

What’s next for the country’s fragile democracy after the Supreme Court disqualified its prime minister?

Nawaz Sharif win 2013
Nawaz Sharif waves to his supporters in Lahore in May 2013. [K.M. Chaudary/AP Photo]

Islamabad, Pakistan – On the balmy evening of May 12, 2013, when Nawaz Sharif strode out triumphantly onto the balcony of his Lahore home to address an adoring crowd, he must have thought that this time, surely, he was going to make it to the finish line.

He had just won Pakistan’s general election by a landslide, securing a two-thirds majority in parliament and was on the way to ensuring the first orderly transition between civilian governments in the country’s history.

“We have made promises to you, and we will fulfill them all!” he said, waving to scores of supporters, some clambering on to the low trees in his garden just to catch a glimpse of the newly elected prime minister.

Four years later, that must now feel like a lifetime ago for Sharif.

On Friday, Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified him from holding public office, dismissing him as prime minister and referring him and members of his family to a corruption court for trial.

Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif steps down as PM after court disqualifies him

Sharif was the latest Pakistani civilian prime minister to not complete a full five-year term. 

None have done so in the country’s 70-year history.

Previous leaders have been removed by military coups, the dissolution of assemblies or by the courts. The military has ruled Pakistan for roughly half of its history since gaining independence from the British in 1947.

Sharif had been dismissed twice before: once after a tussle with the president under the watchful eye of the military in 1993, and again in a direct military coup by then-army chief Pervez Musharraf in 1999.

Friday’s landmark ruling stated that Sharif had failed to declare his role in Capital FZE, a United Arab Emirates-based company of which he was the chairman. Sharif held a work permit sponsored by the company, and, under Emirati law, was bound to be paid a salary, even a nominal one.

Sharif says he never withdrew the 10,000 UAE dirhams (roughly $2,720) he was owed every month, and thus never declared it in his mandatory parliamentary and tax wealth disclosures.

READ MORE: What’s next for Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif?

The Supreme Court disagreed, arguing that even a benefit not withdrawn constitutes a “receivable” asset.

“It is hereby declared that having failed to disclose his un-withdrawn receivables constituting assets from Capital FZE, Jebel Ali, UAE in his nomination papers filed for the General Elections held in 2013 […], and having furnished a false declaration under solemn affirmation respondent No. 1 Mian Muhammad Nawaz Sharif is not honest [and] therefore, he is disqualified to be a Member of the Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament),” the verdict read.

The court cited Article 62 of Pakistan’s constitution, which states that all members of parliament must be “honest and trustworthy”.

In a televised party meeting on Saturday, Sharif asked, “When I never took a salary, what would I declare?” 

He added that “when you take something, there’s a problem, when you don’t, there’s a problem”. 

Pakistan’s ‘fragile democracy’

Supporters of the decision – notably Sharif’s political opponents – have argued that the verdict marks the beginning of accountability for the country’s ruling elites. But critics say that such a beginning will only be possible when people other than political leaders – including military officials and civilian bureaucrats – face the same kind of consequences.

Those sceptical of the verdict argue that the use of Article 62 to disqualify the prime minister over a subjective value judgment damages Pakistan’s fragile democracy.

“Articles 62 and 63 are Islamic injunctions introduced by former military dictator General Zia ul Haq [in 1985],” Owais Tohid, a senior journalist and political analyst, told Al Jazeera.

“Who gets to say that you are ‘honest’ and ‘trustworthy’, who gets to say whether you are truthful or not? Who is the judge?”

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Many in Pakistan view the move by the court to outright dismiss the prime minister, rather than simply referring his case to a corruption trial court, as a blow to the country’s democratic system.

“I think this has a far reaching impact on Pakistan’s democratic and political system, which is dragging itself along to complete its full five year tenure,” Tohid said.

“I think that in future, these articles [of the constitution] will be used to further strangulate space for parliamentarians, and we will see it very soon.”

Other analysts agree that the grounds for dismissal seem insubstantial when compared with the vastness of the corruption that Sharif and his family are alleged to have committed during his previous two terms in office.

‘Tug of war’ 

The ‘Panama Papers’ inquiry against Sharif centres around how his family acquired a multi-million dollar set of apartments in London’s posh Park Lane neighbourhood. That case, among others has been referred to the corruption trial court.

“The grounds that were used for the dismissal, they seem minor,” Nusrat Javed, a political analyst, said. “The perception will be that [the court] was determined to get rid of him.”

Some argue, however, that the circumstances of Sharif’s dismissal in this case mark a departure from the typical in Pakistan’s chequered history with democracy.

 “The circumstances [here] are unique in so far as the basis of this dismissal was a concrete exogenous event [i.e. the ‘Panama Papers’ leak], and not a conspiracy,” said Umair Javed, a columnist for the English-language newspaper Dawn.

“There may have been others who benefited from this in a less than scrupulous way, but you can’t hold them responsible for conspiring.”

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Pakistan’s military has carried out three direct coups against democratically-elected civilian governments, and has engineered regime change several times. As such, suspicion generally falls on what is known in Pakistan as the “establishment”, a catch-all term used to describe the military and its intelligence services.

This time, however, some believe that things are not as clear cut.

“Right now, the state’s institutions, including the military establishment, the judiciary, the executive, political forces and the media are all in a tug of war,” Tohid said.

“And that’s why we see chaos,” he added. 

“It doesn’t mean the military or the judiciary wants to take over the country, it’s just a tussle to regain lost ground and to dictate the future rules of the game.”

Rocky road ahead

With Sharif gone, President Mamnoon Hussain is expected to convene a session of parliament soon to pick a new leader of the house.

On Saturday, Sharif’s PML-N party announced that Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz’s younger brother, would succeed him as prime minister.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, another PML-N leader and former petroleum minister, would take up the position temporarily, while the younger Sharif resigned his current post as chief minister of Punjab province to run in a by-election to join the federal parliament before he is elected prime minister.

Analysts believe the party will rally behind the Sharifs, rather than succumb to infighting ahead of a general election in that is due in mid-2018.

“Right now, the feeling [in the party] will be that because the storm is strong, they need to stand fast and survive until 2018,” says Nusrat Javed. “They’ll want to put a person who can keep the house intact and have the visible ability to keep them going until the next election.”

READ MORE: Who will be Pakistan’s next prime minister?

The opposition, meanwhile, will be sharpening its knives for Sharif’s possible successor, having already scored a victory in knocking out the elder Sharif.

“We have already tried to challenge [Shahbaz Sharif’s] involvement in the Hudabiya case in the Lahore High Court,” said Shafqat Mahmood, a central leader of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party. “We think he is involved, and we also think that he has other problems.”

Mahmood clarified that no decision had been made on whether to move ahead with a further legal challenge to the younger Sharif, and that such a decision would be made a party meeting on Saturday.

The party will also decide whether to field its own candidate against the PML-N for prime minister.

Meanwhile on Friday, the opposition Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) announced that it would field a candidate, but there will be little hope for victory for either the PPP or PTI, given the PML-N’s heavy majority in parliament. 

For many, it now seems like a lifetime ago that Sharif was celebrating that huge majority, beaming as he waved to the crowd gathered at his Lahore residence. 

“Today, I have felt the kind of love that Pakistan has shown me. And I love you twice as much!” he had shouted then, to a huge roar.

Today, Sharif is simply hoping that love is still alive.

Asad Hashim is Al Jazeera’s Web Correspondent in Pakistan. He tweets @AsadHashim.

Source: Al Jazeera