The unmaking of Nawaz Sharif

Published August 6, 2017
White Star
White Star

The irony is unmistakable: rewind to March 15, 2009 when Mian Nawaz Sharif defied house arrest orders to lead a rally to restore the then Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry. As his convoy moved through Lahore, thousands lined up on the street and more waved at him from their rooftops. CJP Chaudhry was ultimately restored and Nawaz had stolen the political plaudits for having an ‘independent judiciary’ installed. His third term for prime minister looked nailed in.

And indeed that was the case. Nawaz breezed through the 2013 polls with ease and until the Panama Papers leaks blew the lid early last year, he looked indomitable. A fragmented opposition hardly posed any serious challenge to his party’s political stranglehold on Punjab while he was also able to extend his tentacles to other provinces. A fourth term as prime minister beckoned, but for the Panama Papers — a whirlpool that seems to have drowned him.

Indeed the devastating Supreme Court (SC) ruling has not only delivered Nawaz Sharif the ultimate humiliation of being unceremoniously ousted from power, but has also put him and his entire family in the dock over corruption allegations. This unprecedented and controversial court action has kept a Damocles’ sword hanging over his children as well as his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who has now been nominated to take the mantle of power on a permanent basis.

That also raises questions about the future of the House of Sharif that has dominated the country’s political scene for the past three decades, whether in or out of power. Surely the three-time prime minister has gone through such trials and tribulations in the past too when his government was ousted twice, once by a military-backed constitutional coup and the other by direct military intervention that sent him into exile. Each time he returned to power with a much greater electoral mandate.

Just a few months ago, another term seemed all but guaranteed for the recently disqualified prime minister. How did it all go so wrong for him? And what does the House of Sharif have in store for the future?

But will he be as fortunate this time?


The rise of Nawaz Sharif to the highest echelon of power and the birth of a new urban-based political dynasty reflected changing realities of Pakistani politics after the 1977 military coup. The military regime needed a measure of legitimacy and a social base of support. It co-opted substantial segments of landlords, industrialists and emerging commercial groups mostly belonging to Punjab. The re-engineered Muslim League leadership was largely constituted of politicians who owed their political rise to the military’s patronage. And the most favourite child of the establishment at the time was to lead them all.

Nawaz was of course politically baptised by General Ziaul Haq’s military government. A scion of a prominent business family from Lahore, Nawaz owed his entry into politics to his father’s proximity with General Ghulam Jilani, a former chief of the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI) who had been appointed as the governor of Punjab as a reward for his role in the 1977 coup.

But the role handed to Nawaz Sharif was beyond any short-termism of gaining legitimacy. He was groomed by the military regime as an alternative and counterweight to Benazir Bhutto, who had emerged as the uncontested leader of the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) after her father had been executed by General Zia’s government.

The protégé’s first test came in 1981 when Nawaz was appointed as the finance minister of Punjab. A couple of years later, he was elevated to the position of the provincial chief minister despite his not-so-enviable reputation of a man of mediocre talents. He neither had charisma nor any political roots to really challenge the young and fiery Benazir Bhutto. He retained his position as the chief minister of the province after the restoration of democracy in the country following Zia’s death in an air crash.

Although Nawaz could not form a government in the Centre after Zia’s demise, his trajectory from Punjab chief minister to prime minister in the 1990s owed much to the backing of the military and the powerful civil establishment of Punjab. It is no more a secret that the military and the ISI formed the alliance of right-wing parties known as Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI) under Nawaz Sharif to stop the PPP from returning to power. The military-sponsored alliance largely comprised of the politicians who emerged on the scene during the 1980s under Zia’s military rule.

Sharif’s rising political power also saw an exponential growth in the family’s business fortunes. Within years, the Sharif family emerged as one of the richest business families in the country. In fact, financial scandals continued to plague Nawaz throughout his political career, particularly after his ascent to the country’s top position. It finally caught up with him after the Panama Papers named him and his children.

There is a strong perception prevailing among the senior members of the ruling party that the top military brass may have not been involved in Nawaz’s ouster, but that some senior and middle rankers with the military intelligence agencies were active in feeding to the press anti-Sharif material. But as for the allegation of a nexus existing between the judges and the military, it remains merely that so far: an allegation without any substance.

With his rise to the pinnacle of political power, Nawaz Sharif tried to break away from the influence of the military establishment that also brought him down in his previous terms. His ambitions to accumulate absolute power reflected in his move to declare himself “Amir-ul-Momineen” (Leader of the Believers) was also a factor in the conflict with the military leadership leading to his government’s ouster in 1999.

Although the Muslim League has historically remained close to the military establishment, Nawaz Sharif tried to transform it into a mass populist party, though he may not have been fully successful in his endeavour. Still, over the years, despite various ups and downs, he developed a popular mass base that elected him to a record third term in office. The backing of the powerful Punjabi civil establishment, including the bureaucracy and sections of the judiciary, also appeared to have helped his family’s stranglehold over Punjab.

But such moves turned the former protégé into a nemesis of the military establishment. It is not surprising that he remained locked in perpetual conflict with the military leadership throughout his third term in office. This mostly had to do with past baggage of mutual distrust. It was difficult for Nawaz to let go of events following the 1999 coup, when he was taken out of the Prime Minister’s House, handcuffed and put on trial for treason.

In fact, Nawaz found himself locked in conflict with the generals within a few months of his returning to power for the third time. The standoff was triggered by his government’s decision to put former military ruler General Pervez Musharraf on trial on sedition charges. The generals would not allow their former chief to be humiliated. The confrontation turned more ominous with Imran Khan staging a sit-in before the parliament demanding the ouster of the Sharif government in 2014.

There was some credence to the suspicion that the PTI agitation had the blessings of a strong group of Generals. Sharif, however, won that round with the support of the parliament. Most opposition parties stood by him to prevent any Bonapartism. Civil-military relations remain uneasy following the 2014 standoff.

However, there was a resetting of civil-military relations following the appointment of a new army chief in November 2016 and a major reshuffling of top commanders that boosted the confidence of the Sharif government. It was the second time within three years that the prime minister had appointed an officer of his 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.

He may not have been successful in his endeavour during the tenure of the previous high-profile army chief General Raheel Sharif. 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 appeared much more confident about taming the military by appointing a low-profile general who did 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 in history where a new chief made so many new postings and promotions within a couple of weeks of assuming charge. In effect, it was a complete overhaul of the top echelons. On the surface, at least, things seemed to be looking up for Nawaz.


Maryam Nawaz, a woman leading the largest party of Punjab would have been a game-changer for Pakistani politics but for the charges of corruption and money laundering | Tariq Mahmood/White Star
Maryam Nawaz, a woman leading the largest party of Punjab would have been a game-changer for Pakistani politics but for the charges of corruption and money laundering | Tariq Mahmood/White Star

Of course this time it wasn’t the military getting rid of him but the apex court, using a highly controversial constitutional clause, a legacy of General Zia’s military rule, to remove him from office for being a dishonest leader.

There is a strong perception prevailing among the senior members of the ruling party that the top military brass may have not been involved in Nawaz’s ouster, but that some senior- and middle-rankers with the military intelligence agencies were active in feeding to the press anti-Sharif material. But as for the allegation of a nexus existing between the judges and the military, it remains merely that so far: an allegation without any substance.

Yet a major concern is that the military could regain its position as an arbiter of power as the deepening political crisis creates a power vacuum. However, there seems to be no possibility of direct military intervention or derailment of the political process. The balance of power may tilt more towards the military but not drastically.

Indeed, the unprecedented judicial action against a sitting prime minister is a watershed moment for the country’s democratic evolution and has been described as a step forward in efforts towards establishing the rule of law. Notwithstanding the scepticism over the judgement perceived as radical, the action came from within the system and not outside the constitutional framework. It also signifies a milestone in the development of an independent judiciary not subservient to the executive, though the perceived harshness of the ruling can rightly be disputed.

The ruling appears to have generated an upheaval and a period of political uncertainty — that is bound to happen when any entrenched political dynastic order is shaken. It also appears that the ruling has further deepened political polarisation in the country. But it certainly does not threaten the democratic political process as feared by many.

The unfolding of the Panama Papers scandal, however, did throw Nawaz Sharif into the pressure cooker. It may be true that the scandal brought many matters into the open, but the allegations of the Sharif family owning expensive real estate in London are not new. The issue first surfaced some two decades ago, following an FIA investigation report that provided details about the ownership of the Mayfair apartments. But this investigation report was suppressed when Nawaz Sharif returned to power in 1997.

The matter could have been settled earlier had the former prime minister agreed to setting up a parliamentary committee to investigate it. But in the hubris of power, he rejected the opposition’s demand. His contradictory speeches in the parliament and outside landed him in big trouble. With no investigative agency daring to probe the allegation, the apex court was compelled to intervene.

A major consequence of the ‘Panamagate’ scandal is the changing balance of power among various branches of the state that may influence the future of the democratic political process in the country. Undoubtedly, the judiciary has emerged as an arbiter of power with the apex court becoming the main venue of settling political battles.

The role of the top court has further expanded with the parliament becoming increasingly ineffective as well as Sharif’s disregard of institutional decision-making processes. Given this situation, it is not surprising that the political fate of the country’s two most powerful political leaders has been tied to the Supreme Court rulings in the respective petitions filed against them by their rival parties.

Significantly, the political crisis triggered by the Panama Papers has helped the military establishment expand its space. Interestingly, the scandal unfolded when some major problems in civil-military relations remain unresolved. That may also be the reason behind suspicions that the military intelligence agencies used the scandal to destabilise the government. The inclusion of members of the ISI and Military Intelligence (MI) on the joint investigation team probing the matter further reinforced this conspiracy theory.


Unlike the past, however, Nawaz’s party remains in power. And with his younger brother to take charge if he gets elected to the National Assembly, power will continue to reside in the Sharif family. Nawaz Sharif may be out of office but the dynasty lives on.

The entire political spectrum and political dynamics will change dramatically if Shahbaz Sharif is also knocked out by the accountability court on corruption charges. But till now, the party is not yet over. While Imran Khan convened a public meeting in Islamabad, PML-N headed to Narowal to prove that Sharif still enjoyed the support of a large number of voters.

The political landscape will only become clearer after the accountability court has completed their trial in six months as mandated by the Supreme Court. Surely the Sharifs are shaken but they are not out of the power game. They seem determined to fight back with the party standing by them. There is no sign of panic among the supporters so far as the party is still in power both in the centre and Punjab.

Perhaps, the most daunting challenge confronting the party leadership after the legal setback is how to maintain unity in its rank and file. There is also a question over whether the Punjab civil establishment would continue to back the PML-N under the younger Sharif’s leadership after the damning indictment of the family. Its support has been pivotal for maintaining the PML-N’s electoral predominance in the province.

So far the party appears to be standing united behind Sharif, but history shows that senior party members have jumped ship even during small political tempests. The most recent example was the formation of the PML-Quaid after General Pervez Musharraf’s coup. Many of these defectors were welcomed with open arms as a sizeable number of them returned to the treasury benches as well as the cabinet. One is not sure if they will continue to stick by the leadership that is facing a crisis of moral and political legitimacy. The longer the political uncertainty prevails, the deeper will be the chasm created.

Some cracks in the party have already emerged, however, with former interior minister Chaudhry Nisar announcing his decision to quit the federal cabinet. It seems hard to believe that the former minister will break his long association with the PML-N. But his statement a day before the Supreme Court ruling has already done the damage encouraging others in senior party positions to speak out as well.

The future of politics in Punjab will depend on whether the PML-N remains united despite the ouster from power of Nawaz Sharif.


Surely the court ruling against the prime minister has given the opposition, particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI), which was the main petitioner in the Panama case, a cause to celebrate. But it is not clear how disparate groups can build on the ouster of Nawaz Sharif. Undoubtedly it was the sheer determination of Imran Khan and his one-dimensional campaign against the Sharifs that finally got him the prime minister’s scalp. That will certainly boost the morale of the PTI. But it remains to be seen whether the opposition can actually dislodge the PML-N and the Sharif legacy from their stronghold of Punjab.

While it will certainly be hard to for the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) to re-establish itself as a major political force in the province, it remains questionable whether the PTI has the capacity to snatch Punjab from the Sharifs. Not surprisingly, the PTI and the PPP, who were united in demanding Sharif’s ouster, have now parted ways. Interestingly, both the PPP and PML-N would very much like to see Imran Khan also being disqualified by the Supreme Court on the basis of a money trail leading to the purchase of his Bani Gala estate.

Although the cases against Nawaz Sharif and Imran Khan are different, the two parties would be happy to see the PTI chief removed from the electoral scene. While the PTI presents the biggest challenge to the PML-N’s political domination in Punjab, the PPP sees it as an opportunity to regain some lost ground in the country’s biggest and most powerful province. There appears, however, a consensus among all political parties against early elections. It will certainly not help the ruling party were the PML-N to go to polls with its leaders in the dock.

While all allied parties have stood by the PML-N government for a long time, a realignment of political forces in the coming months is very much on the cards. It will be interesting to see whether the opposition parties could stick together following the Supreme Court judgement. But surely the Supreme Court ruling is not the end of the ‘Panamagate’ episode. The trial of the entire Sharif family in the accountability court could fuel further political instability in the country. A long drawn-out legal and political battle lies ahead.

Most worrying is that the application of the controversial articles 62 and 63 of the constitution against a sitting prime minister could open a floodgate of petitions challenging other members of the government as well as the opposition of being “dishonest” thus creating an unprecedented turmoil. There is certainly a need to reform the system before it is too late.

The writer is a senior journalist

Published in Dawn, EOS, August 6th, 2017



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