THE prime minister may have escaped the ultimate humiliation of being removed from office, but his ordeal continues. The split judgment of the five-member bench has certainly not cleared him or his family of allegations of wrongdoing. The first family has to face further investigation into the money trail to offshore companies and the properties they own in London.
Although he has escaped disqualification (narrowly), the third-time prime minister has emerged politically much weaker after this historic judgment. The declaration of victory by his supporters is certainly premature. Nawaz Sharif’s trials and tribulations are far from over. His political fate will be decided by a joint investigation team (JIT) to be set up by the Supreme Court. The committee is mandated to submit its findings within 60 days. We are seeing part two of the Panamagate saga that is keeping the country riveted.
It is quite a damning ruling for the prime minister with two of the five judges calling for his disqualification for not being honest. The other three may not have agreed to this extreme action, but there is consensus that the Sharif family has failed to provide substantive evidence regarding the source of the money used to buy expensive properties in London. Hence, further investigation is needed.
How can the spy agencies conduct an investigation into a financial scandal?
Interestingly, the two dissenting judges are the more senior ones and they are in line for elevation to the post of chief justice. Although a divided judgment was very much expected, it has also, to the disappointment of the opposition parties, left the matter inconclusive adding to the political uncertainty. In fact, the issue of Sharif’s disqualification has been postponed until the JIT submits its report.
Curiously, the 540-page judgment begins with a quote from Maria Puzo’s epic novel The Godfather — “Behind every great fortune there is a crime.” The quote is originally attributed to 19th-century French writer Honoré de Balzac. The use of this quote itself is revealing particularly in the context of the scandal. The bench has also raised questions regarding the money trail related to the Sharif family’s Gulf steel mill and ordered the JIT to investigate the letter from a Qatari royal, which was submitted by Sharif’s lawyer as evidence in the case.
It will be for the first time in the country’s history that a sitting prime minister will appear before an investigation team probing allegations of financial wrongdoing. This raises the pertinent question of whether he should stay in his high office during the investigation. There is also a moral question involved. Surely there is no precedent in the country of a political leader stepping down voluntarily. But his position is certainly compromised as he faces an inquiry into a financial scandal with his moral authority diminished.
Significantly, the JIT includes representatives of the Military Intelligence and ISI bringing the military into a probe against a sitting prime minister. The involvement of the intelligence agencies in a purely financial inquiry may have serious political ramifications. One wonders about the rationale behind it. How can the spy agencies conduct an investigation into a financial scandal? The decision makes the generals a party in a political game that may have serious consequences for civil-military relations.
It is apparent that Sharif is determined to take the fight to the end and to not succumb to the opposition’s pressure to step down. His supporters appear quite confident they will manage to drag on the JIT inquiry long enough to get close to the elections next year. Given the experience of past JITs, one cannot totally rule out this possibility. But it is not going to help him politically. Contesting polls under the shadow of Panamagate does not augur well for a leader seeking a record fourth term.
A major challenge for a morally and politically weak prime minister is to deal with an extremely aggressive opposition. Almost all the major opposition parties seem to be united on the demand for his resignation. Their bravado notwithstanding, there is deep realisation among PML-N supporters about the seriousness of the situation.
Indeed, the Panamagate scandal and the court ruling have changed the political dynamics of the country. It has brought into question the supposedly unassailable position of the PML-N in Punjab that is the main political battleground. Though inconclusive the ruling has provided a strong leverage to Sharif’s arch-rival, the PTI, to step up the pressure on him.
It is not surprising that the PTI has declared the ruling a moral and political victory for it. The PPP’s response to the verdict is ambivalent. Asif Ali Zardari declared that the verdict has given a lifeline to the prime minister. Although he too has called for Sharif’s resignation, it is not clear whether the party will join hands with the PTI in any anti-government move.
Badly bruised, Nawaz Sharif may be considering some other options to keep the power within the family. It is quite possible that Nawaz Sharif will not seek a fourth term, and instead, bring forward his daughter Maryam Nawaz as the next leader. One positive point in the ruling for the PML-N is that she has come out unscathed. That she would not was one of the prime minister’s major concerns.
The first daughter has long been promoted as the heir apparent. She had virtually been running the party and was also involved in important government decisions in the absence of her father last year. The party has already announced she will contest the next elections. For Sharif supporters, it is the only way to keep power within the family. But that may also intensify family rivalry. It will not be an easy transition with a powerful uncle in the line of succession too.
The sword of Damocles continues to hang over the head of the beleaguered prime minister. A vicious battle for survival lies ahead for him.
The writer is an author and journalist.
Published in Dawn, April 21st, 2017