IS Nawaz Sharif’s autumn of despair over? The Panamagate inquiry seems to have hit a snag after the judges decided not to give up their ‘hard-earned’ winter break with a new chief justice due to take charge during the vacation. The transition in the army leadership and major overhauling in the top brass has brought some respite to the embattled government.
With no serious challenge from a fractious opposition, the prime minister appears to have ridden out the crisis that threatened to cut short his third term in office. But this optimism could prove premature given the volatility of Pakistani politics. The hubris that comes with a sense of invulnerability often leads one to a slippery slope and that has been very true in the case of Nawaz Sharif as seen during his previous two terms.
In a remarkable turn of events, the five-member Supreme Court bench headed by the chief justice adjourned the Panama proceedings last week. The hearing on the Panama Papers that raised questions pertaining to the Sharif family’s alleged ownership of offshore companies and foreign assets will now be held in the first week of January. The bench had earlier promised to conduct the proceedings on a day-to-day basis to conclude it in a short period of time.
This time Nawaz Sharif appears much more confident about taming the military.
With a new chief justice at the helm, a new bench is likely to hear the case afresh and decide whether or not to form a commission of inquiry. That means the case could drag on, much to the satisfaction of the prime minister, who will soon be entering the twilight months of his term. The suggestion about a commission has already become controversial with Imran Khan who is the chief petitioner rejecting it.
It is apparent that the PTI had prematurely declared victory as it got carried away by the observations made by the judges during the hearing. It has yet to be seen whether the new chief justice will heed Imran Khan’s request to retain the old bench.
Although Justice Anwar Zaheer Jamali, the outgoing chief justice has declared that judges do not relent under the pressure of any political party, what appeared to some as a sudden soft-peddling by the apex court in the Panama case did intrigue observers. Some believed that the changing political environment, especially after the army leadership transition, reinforced perceptions of the civilian government gaining control, and that this might have had some bearing on the court’s approach.
All eyes are now focused on Justice Saqib Nisar, the incoming chief. Whether he adopts a more pro-active approach has yet to be seen. Will the judges raise the stakes on an issue that has become so highly politicised? Notwithstanding Imran Khan’s threat of taking to the street, there is no indication of the general public coming out in his support.
Meanwhile, the Sharif administration has already shown its proclivity for brute force to contain any attempt to paralyse the government. Will the apex court come under any pressure to expedite the hearing on the case that directly involves the family of a sitting prime minister? Predictably the government has consented to the suggestion of setting up of a commission knowing that it would be hard for it to investigate the matter.
It is, however, the anticipated resetting of civil-military relations following the appointment of a new army chief and a major reshuffling of top commanders that has further boosted the confidence of the Sharif government. It is the second time within three years that this prime minister has appointed an officer of his own choice to lead the most powerful institution in the country. Both times he picked a dark horse for the coveted post, hoping to tilt the balance of power towards his civilian government.
However, he may not have been successful in his endeavour during the tenure of the previous, high-profile army chief. Civil and military tensions cast a huge shadow over the country’s political landscape throughout that period often threatening to derail the entire political system. His own ineptitude and absence of governance and a clear policy direction on key national security issues contributed hugely to the power imbalance.
But this time Sharif appears much more confident about taming the military by appointing a low-profile general who does not represent continuity in the policies of his predecessor. The retirement of a number of senior commanders who were superseded shows a complete shift from the past hierarchical line.
There have been few instances where a new chief has made so many new postings and promotions within a couple of weeks of his taking over. Some security analysts describe it as a complete overhaul of the top echelons with many of those considered close to Gen Raheel Sharif being sidelined and newly promoted junior officers being posted to critical command positions.
A big question is whether the latest postings have been made with the consultation of the prime minister and the defence minister, and if so, is it a departure from the norm of non-civilian interference in internal army postings. It is true that every army chief likes to choose his team, but there is always some kind of continuity. It is certainly rare to make a complete break. The appointment as ISI chief of Lt-Gen Naveed Mukhtar, who is believed to have close family links with Sharifs, has particularly raised some eyebrows.
Whatever consideration there may be in those new appointments the main loyalties will still remain with the institution. Who knows this better than Nawaz Sharif himself? Surely, the transition in the leadership provides an opportunity to the prime minister to mend his fences with the army. But he must not repeat the mistakes of the past and get carried away by a sense of hubris. It may not be his autumn of despair, but neither is it his spring of power.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, December 14th, 2016