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15th prime minister fails to complete tenure

Updated July 29, 2017

History was repeated on Friday morning. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was sent home after the Supreme Court disqualified him under the Constitution’s Article 62(1)(f) for misdeclaring his assets when he was just 10 months away from completing his five-year tenure in office. He became the 15th prime minister of the country who got sacked without completing the term. He also became the first prime minister who was elected thrice but couldn’t complete even a single term.

The PML-N leader was first booted out of the office by his close ally in the presidency, Ghulam Ishaq Khan, in 1993. Although the apex court reinstated him, he agreed to quit along with the president under pressure from the military command.

His second term was terminated prematurely when Gen Pervez Musharraf and generals close to him ousted him in a bloodless coup in 1999.

This time the burden of sending him packing was borne by the country’s top court, which used the infamous Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, which, political leader Makhdoom Javed Hashmi recently said, were inserted by dictator Gen Ziaul Haq to use them as a stick against politicians.

The PPP’s Yousuf Raza Gilani was the first premier to vacate the Prime Minister House on the court’s orders. He was also the first chief executive of the country to have been disqualified in 2012 under the Article 63(f)(1) after the judges found him ‘guilty’ of having committed contempt of court because he did not write to the Swiss authorities to reopen corruption cases against then president Asif Zardari under their order.

Mr Sharif and his children had been under the cloud since the day the leaked Panama Papers showed that the family owned offshore companies and assets they had not declared in their tax returns and wealth statements. When the court admitted a petition requesting an investigation into his links with the offshore companies and four expensive London flats, many thought that the so-called establishment or the powers that be planned to send another prime minister packing with the help of the courts. After all, the country’s history is replete with such instances.

In the early years of Pakistan, immediately after the murder of the country’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan in 1951, the British-trained civil bureaucracy started ‘palace intrigues’ against politicians weakened by infighting and lack of popular support and political legitimacy. As many as five prime ministers — Khawaja Nazimuddin, Mohammad Ali Bogra, Chaudhry Mohammad Ali, Hossain Shaheed Suharwardi and I.I. Chundrigar — were sent home by governor general Ghulam Muhammad, a former bureaucrat, using immense powers that his office gave him.

Later, another ex-bureaucrat, Iskandar Mirza, conspired with the military to replace the old and ailing governor general. Initially, he kept the prime minister, Feroze Khan Noon, chosen by his predecessor. But that wasn’t for very long. Soon Mirza struck again, imposing martial law and firing the prime minister with the help of the military. But he didn’t survive for long. Army chief Gen Ayub Khan had decided that the military should rule the country directly instead of playing second fiddle in the chess game going on. All this happened in a span of less than seven years.

The two times the military directly staged a coup against elected governments were in 1977 when Gen Zia ousted the nation’s first popularly elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, and in 1999 when Gen Musharraf ejected Mr Sharif from the PM House.

In the 1980s and ’90s, the establishment used the powers given to the president by Gen Zia through the notorious eighth amendment to the Constitution immediately after the party-less elections in 1985. The Article 58(2)(b) of the Constitution that gave the president vast powers to remove a prime minister and his government and dissolve the assemblies was used by its creator to dismiss his hand-picked prime minister Mohammad Khan Junejo.

Ghulam Ishaq Khan, who had replaced Gen Zia after his death in a mysterious plane crash, used it to dismiss both Benazir Bhutto and Mr Sharif before the military forced him to also call it a day. Even a close relationship of Farooq Leghari with his leader, Ms Bhutto, who had ditched Nawabzada Nasrullah Khan to send him to the presidency, didn’t stop him from using these powers to throw out his party’s government.

The story of prime ministers under Gen Musharraf wasn’t much different. Though he had restored after the 2002 elections the presidential powers of Article 58(2)(b) to the Consti­tution — Mr Sharif had snatched away the powers to remove a prime minister and dissolve assemblies with the help of Ms Bhutto after the 1997 polls — he didn’t use it to dismiss his first prime minister, Zafarullah Khan Jamali. But he forced the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Q to revolt against him and force him to resign. The general had another two prime ministers work under him — Chaudhry Shujaat Husain as a stopgap arrangement till the election of his favourite Shaukat Aziz to the National Assembly, who stayed in his office till the formation of an interim government before the 2008 elections.

Historical parallels

Some important parallels can be drawn from the political instability and removal of prime ministers in the 1950s, and in the 1980s and 1990s. Both periods were fraught with political rivalry and politicians seeking support from the civil-military establishment instead of their constituents.

On most occasions, save for the two military coups, the massive powers allocated to the offices of governor general and president were used by the civil-military establishment to remove the political governments — both elected and unelected. And all the premiers lost their jobs and had their governments dismissed on charges of corruption and bad governance.

“(Ever since Independence) Pakistan’s political class is on one side and the middle class — which fills the state apparatus, including civil and military bureaucracy and the judiciary — on the other. The middle class state functionaries hate the guts of politicians whom they consider corrupt, inefficient and not entitled to rule the country,” says Dr Mohammad Waseem, a professor at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.

“If the middle class is challenging the legitimacy of politicians, it shouldn’t surprise us. (After all, the state functionaries) were there long before the creation of Pakistan and the political class emerged quite late, just before the partition,” he says. “Since the judges also come from the middle class, they tend to side with the establishment,” he adds, referring to Friday’s verdict against Mr Sharif.

With the presidential powers under the Article 58(2)(b) withdrawn by parliament under president Zardari after the 2008 elections and the military stuck in the war against terrorism in the region, the onus of prematurely sending the prime ministers home at the behest of the establishment appears to have fallen on the shoulders of the judiciary.

Only this new mechanism creates a little more noise than when in good old days an unelected governor general or indirectly elected president could send everyone packing with a ‘putsch of his pen’.

Published in Dawn, July 29th, 2017