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A catastrophic miscalculation

Updated July 29, 2017

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Supporters of PML-N gesture during rally to condemn the dismissal of their leader Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, Friday.— AP
Supporters of PML-N gesture during rally to condemn the dismissal of their leader Nawaz Sharif in Lahore, Friday.— AP

It is a shattering blow to the legacy of Nawaz Sharif, a third-term prime minister months away from the historic milestone of a full term. Instead, Mr Sharif now faces an extended political exile, swept aside by a shocking political miscalculation and a bewildering Supreme Court judgement.

“They trapped themselves,” said Kashif Abbasi, a leading journalist and host of Off the Record on ARY News, of the Sharif family. “It started with the political reality that they had already told the country they only owned the (Avenfield House, Park Lane) apartments since 2006, so they couldn’t change the story after the Panama Papers.”

An abiding mystery of the Sharifs’ muddled, seemingly half-hearted defence in the Supreme Court is why Mr Sharif and the PML-N chose neither to mount a fierce political attack, tainting the judicial process against the first family nor provide documentation, the fabled, so-called money trail, that may have helped stave off the court.

The dominant view among analysts familiar with the PML-N strategy in the Panama Papers case is that the Sharifs did not expect the case to reach such an advanced stage of judicial and investigatory scrutiny. “Yes, there was a laxness early on,” a senior PML-N leader told Dawn, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the Sharifs’ legal strategy. “There was confusion,” the PML-N leader added, “But there was also a thinking that nothing had been tied to Mian sahib, so why should there be serious concern?”

Other analysts suggest that once the danger had coalesced, Mr Sharif was already looking towards political continuity — especially protecting the possibility of Maryam Nawaz eventually inheriting the party leadership — and had given up on trying to win a favourable judgment. “The prime minister never believed this was about anything other than politics,” said Rana Jawad, Director News, Geo News. “Better to let the verdict be the worst it could be and then take it to the political arena, where the prime minister believes the PML-N still has strength.”

The swift move towards installing an interim prime minister and electing Shahbaz Sharif to the National Assembly to inherit the prime ministership until a scheduled election in 2018 reflects the PML-N strategy of continuity. Analysts suggest at least three reasons for the PML-N seeking a full parliamentary term and rejecting the possibility of early elections:

Senate elections in March, which will consolidate the PML-N’s support in the upper house; time for new power projects to come online, addressing the electricity crisis the party has vowed to fix; and allowing the party to distance itself from the political stain of a Supreme Court ouster of the prime minister.

“It doesn’t automatically change much. Nawaz Sharif was anyway looking to transition to Maryam at some point after the next election,” said Kashif Abbasi. “With Shahbaz’s election, the prime ministership will stay in the family for now and can be reconsidered when the accountability issue is settled.”

A PML-N leader, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, explained: “It was not like Maryam was simply going to inherit the party. There were always going to be hurdles, whether in terms of acceptance inside the party or now in terms of her getting past legal hurdles.”

But Suhail Warraich, a veteran journalist and expert on Punjab politics, believes the decision to reject a snap election is another Sharif error. “The N-League supporter isn’t a street fighter and he doesn’t like conflict with the establishment. The longer the government continues, the more doubt will creep in about whom to vote for. Imran Khan looms as the obvious alternative.”

Lurking behind the veneer of calm in the PML-N is a nagging doubt: have the Sharifs found themselves in legal jeopardy and the party in political peril because Nawaz Sharif’s political instincts let them down?

It is not just the contrast between an energetic, relentless Imran Khan and a placid Nawaz Sharif, seemingly lacking political fire in the belly. Throughout his third term, and perhaps since his return to Pakistan in 2007, Sharif has cut a mellow figure. Barring a spurt of political activity in the run-up to the 2013 election, Sharif has responded to political events slowly and rarely emerged from his political shell.

That cautiousness or perhaps disinterest allowed the Panama Papers crisis to escalate until the Sharifs were backed into a corner. “Is he the man and leader he was in the ’90s,” a PML-N leader asked. “Probably not. None of them are. Maybe he’s lost some of the fire and that’s why we are here today.”

Suhail Warraich concurred: “It was a colossal miscalculation. He probably thought they’d take it to the edge and then let him off. He didn’t read the signs.”

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2017