Aftermath of a verdict

Is it 'game over' for Nawaz Sharif?

On July 28, another prime minister of Pakistan was sent home without completing his tenure. Mian Nawaz Sharif, a power premier and the only man to have been elected three times to this position, was disqualified by a five-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan. Five-zero was the decision. The decision was not totally unexpected; the build-up to the decision had led one to believe that, one way or the other, the then prime minister was certainly in trouble.

The disqualification of Sharif was not on corruption charges related to Panama - those charges are to be probed by an accountability court now and an order has been given to file references in this regard - but on a debatable technicality related to his 'iqama' (United Arab Emirates work visa). Sharif had to step down because he was employed by his son's company, Capital FZE, as chairman of its board at a basic salary of 10,000 dirham per month from August 2006 to April 2014. Sharif denied drawing any salary from this company but the court said he was 'dishonest' and therefore not fit to rule. Before we delve further into the consequences of Sharif's ouster, let us recapitulate how this judgment came about.

In April 2016, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) released the Panama Papers, a "leak of 11.5m files from the database of the world's fourth biggest offshore law firm, Mossack Fonseca". While the Panama Papers may have created a storm internationally, these leaks were a godsend for the Opposition parties in Pakistan, especially for the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, a party led by the cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan. The Panama Papers revealed that three of Sharif's children - his sons, Hassan and Hussain, and his 'heiress apparent', Maryam Nawaz - "were owners or had the right to authorise transactions for several companies", and owned offshore companies and properties that had not been declared. Sharif's name was not in the Panama Papers but because his children's names were, his political career was now at stake. The Sharif family obviously denied these charges and then went on to make a series of blunders.

The Opposition, especially the Pakistan People's Party (PPP), offered Sharif a political way out months before the Panama case was taken up by the Supreme Court. It was suggested that a joint parliamentary committee should be formed to investigate the charges and terms of reference to be framed accordingly. The government agreed to the parliamentary committee's formation but in the end, did not agree to the Opposition's terms of reference. The Supreme Court was at first reluctant to take up the case but eventually a five-member bench was constituted to hear the Panama case. It was because of the government's own dilly-dallying on the issue that led to the injection of the judiciary in probing the matter. Maybe the Sharif government thought the judiciary would bail them out. That - as they have since discovered - was not to be.

When the interim Panama verdict came out on April 20, two of the five judges disqualified the prime minister but the other three believed that they did not have enough evidence to convict him. A six-member joint investigation team was constituted to investigate these charges. Thus began a circus of sorts. Every other day, a member of the Sharif family, including the then prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, and their close associates were called in before the JIT. In spite of the best lawyers out to defend them, a lot of evidence submitted by the Sharif family was said to be either forged or fake or not credible enough as per the JIT. Questions were also raised about the members and the workings of the JIT and how they were being 'helped' by the military establishment given that two of the JIT members were from the Inter-Services Intelligence and military intelligence respectively. The Sharif family also alleged that they were being harassed by the JIT members. The Pakistan media, too, was divided much like the Pakistan nation.

Now more famously known as the 'Iqama verdict' instead of the 'Panama verdict', Nawaz Sharif's disqualification has started a new debate on the judiciary's overreach. While the judiciary's discretionary overreach has political consequences, there were of course a number of reasons that led to all this. Pakistan's judiciary has changed over the last decade. What started as the Lawyers' Movement back in 2007 and culminated in the downfall of former president, General (retired) Pervez Musharraf, changed the judiciary in more ways than one. The former chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, pioneered the politicisation of the Pakistani judiciary and translated it into many a populist verdict. The ouster of the former PPP prime minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, by Chaudhry, the Memogate case and many others from that era led us to a point where the judiciary is now being touted as another 'establishment', a word formerly used for the military establishment only.

Saroop Ijaz, a lawyer and columnist, summed it up the best: "The Panama papers verdict was not about elevated principles of democracy, constitutionalism and accountability. It is elite infighting... the choice offered is unflattering, between an arrogant political dynasty apparently caught with their hand in the till or unelected judges and generals deciding our destiny on personal preference. There is no reason to celebrate. This is neither a victory for accountability nor a great setback for democracy."

This verdict has divided the Pakistan polity like never before. The detractors say that the Sharifs themselves created a political atmosphere that led to a technical conviction by the Supreme Court but those who think the judiciary overstepped make the point that if Sharif were to be disqualified, it should have been on solid grounds instead of a mere technicality related to accounting terms. The use of Articles 62 and 63 has opened up a new Pandora's box. That it was the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) that opposed the repeal or amendment of these controversial Articles in the Constitution when the previous PPP government wanted to do so is also a matter of record. Now, it seems, the PML-N is ready to make some changes to the Constitution in the wake of the verdict.

The most important question at the moment is whether this is 'game over' for Nawaz Sharif. It is difficult and too soon to say. The PML-N government elected another prime minister soon after Sharif's ouster and his wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, will now contest the by-election from his vacant seat in Lahore.

In a show of power, Nawaz Sharif took to the streets in the form of a rally on Pakistan's famous Grand Trunk Road, a political belt known to be PML-N's stronghold. Sharif addressed the charged crowds in several cities on his way back from Islamabad to his hometown Lahore. He roared like a lion - calling out the military establishment, calling out the judiciary, asking what his mistake was and why he was thrown out for 'not' drawing a salary from his son's company. Sharif charged that the courts did not respect the mandate of the people of Pakistan and how they would never dare to put a former military dictator in the dock like they do the elected representatives. Sharif is visibly unhappy and angry. His GT Road rally was all about sending several messages: one, to his voters that he is not going anywhere even if he has been disqualified for a lifetime. Two, to his opponents that his party is here to stay. Three, to the military establishment and the judiciary that he knows what the game is but he will not give in.

We will see if the PML-N government survives the corruption cases against the Sharif family or if the party disintegrates in the lead up to the next general elections in 2018. There is never a dull moment when it comes to Pakistan's politics but the coming weeks and months will shape the future of Pakistan's political landscape in a way that will be remembered for a long time to come.

(Originally published in The Telegraph)


Popular posts from this blog

It’s IM?!

Up close and personal with M J Akbar

Abhinandan was not released under any pressure: Pakistan