Being prime minister of Pakistan is one of the most challenging jobs in the world. In the 70 years of the country’s independence, not one of its 18 prime ministers has completed a full term in office. Nawaz Sharif looked set to break that impressive streak until last week, when Pakistan’s Supreme Court convicted him of concealing assets and removed him from office. The move is a victory for transparency in governance — although there are some questions about the committee investigating the charges — but it again undercuts the democratic processes that should govern Pakistan.
Sharif, head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), is a three-time prime minister: He was dismissed by the president halfway through his first term and was overthrown by the military in a bloodless coup during his second term in 1999. Given his party’s firm majority in Parliament, his removal does not transform Pakistan’s politics but it does deprive the party and the government of its leading figure.
Sharif’s downfall can be traced to the Panama Papers, the cache of documents stolen from a Panama law firm and released on the internet in 2015 that exposed the labyrinthine dealings of some of the world’s richest and most powerful people.
Those papers revealed that Sharif’s children had property holdings that were inconsistent with official declarations of wealth or their income. While denying any wrongdoing, the prime minister’s explanations for how his family acquired several apartments in some of the most expensive neighborhoods in the world were inconsistent and contradictory.
Opposition leader Imran Khan filed a court case last year, using the Panama Papers to support allegations of money laundering and corruption. In April, a Supreme Court panel ruled 3-2 against disqualifying Sharif from office but commissioned a special investigation to probe further. Last week, the Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Sharif and his family had engaged in “mafia”-like financial dealings, that financial disclosure forms were incomplete and thus disqualified him from office. It also ordered trials in lower courts for him, his daughter (a central figure in the charges), the finance minister and others.
To his credit, Sharif accepted the ruling and immediately stepped down. He nominated and the Pakistan Muslim League accepted Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a senior lawmaker, former Cabinet member and Sharif loyalist, to succeed him. Abbasi will only be a placeholder, however. In keeping with the country’s tradition of dynastic politics, Sharif said that his younger brother Shahbaz, chief minister of Punjab province (the source of the PML-N’s power) would run for his seat in the National Assembly — a special election will be held in 45 days — and should succeed him as prime minister. Given the PML-N’s majority, both Abbasi’s selection as prime minister and his replacement by Shahbaz are both assured.
Opposition leader Khan hailed the court ruling “as the beginning of a new era” for Pakistan, one in which there would no longer be one set of laws for the weak and another for the powerful. “Justice will reign supreme,” and all political leaders “should be held accountable.” On the face of the ruling, Khan is correct and there are good reasons to celebrate. No political leader should be above the law, and democracies depend on transparency, equality and the rule of law to function.
Unfortunately, however, there are also reasons to question the court’s decision. The original Supreme Court ruling acquitted Sharif but called for a subsequent investigation, a curious splitting of hairs for a court of final decision. Then, the Supreme Court decided to conduct its own investigation of the charges against Sharif. That too is an oddity for an appellate body that hears cases that have been previously been litigated by lower courts.
Finally, reports that the investigation relied heavily on military intelligence services should also raise eyebrows, especially given Sharif’s rocky relationship with the military during his previous terms in office. Indeed, Sharif’s supporters have dismissed the ruling as a soft coup, with the military using the judiciary to do its bidding.
The military has always presumed itself the real power in Pakistan; its meddling in politics and readiness to dispose of prime ministers with whom it disagrees is ample proof. While Sharif has worked to minimize his differences with the armed forces during this term in office, there is still suspicion of his readiness to engage with India and his demand to be included in national security decision making.
That struggle between civilian and military authorities remains the real fault line in Pakistan’s politics. Khan’s commitment to democracy and transparency should be applauded but as he celebrates his victory in this latest court ruling, he must be sure that he is not another pawn in a larger game.