Defying all predictions, Nawaz Sharif is back in the country to appear before an accountability court. His return symbolises a defiant disposition. He appears determined to fight back to restore his honour. Despite having been stripped of his position he still holds sway over the government — the new prime minister is at his beck and call. With his brother at the helm in Punjab it appears to be business as usual.
For sure, Sharif’s return has helped instil confidence into his party and maintain a semblance of unity in the ranks. Most importantly, now he may be able to retain his position as the head of the ruling party following the passage of a new public representation bill. It is surely an unprecedented situation for an ousted leader facing indictment on several counts — ranging from money laundering to misappropriation — to be still commanding such authority.
Interestingly, the former prime minister exudes more confidence now than when he left the country, though his tenor has mellowed. He may have been scathing vis-à-vis the judiciary, but there was no more mention of the ‘hidden hands’ conspiring against him.
Indeed, the trial has become more of a political spectacle bringing the court under pressure. Sharif’s arrival at the court under a VVIP protocol sends a clear message that he is still in charge and not defeated yet. His decision to return has certainly gained the disgraced leader huge political mileage, putting his opponents on the back foot. But can he win this twin political and legal battle?
The political crisis stemming from the Panama scandal has allowed the military greater space.
Surely the battle is far from over; in fact, it is getting messier. With the warrants of arrest against the Sharif children and the country’s finance minister facing indictment for living beyond his means, the situation is fast becoming untenable. What happens next is not hard to guess — maybe, it is the unravelling of the entire system. The state has seldom been so fractured.
The so-called accountability process targeting the country’s most powerful political dynasty has widened the fault lines in the existing power structure. The judicial action against the Sharifs and the perceived backing of the security establishment in the matter has brought the clash of institutions to a head.
It is an extremely dangerous situation with no one really in charge. If not handled properly, it could bring down the entire political edifice. Surely, the conspiracy theory that a nexus between the judiciary and the military plotted Sharif’s ouster sounds a bit wild. But as many point out, what appears to be the security establishment’s tacit backing has provided spine to the judiciary. Otherwise, could the latter have taken on a three-time prime minister even though there is substantive evidence implicating Sharif and his family in those cases?
The controversial decision to include the MI and ISI in the joint investigation team has further reinforced the perception. Not surprisingly, PML-N supporters use this argument to lend credence to the allegation of a ‘dark conspiracy’ to destabilise the democratic system.
It also seems that NAB, pronounced dead by the same court, being brought back to life and ordered to reopen old cases against the Sharif family could only be possible with the backing of the security establishment. But the public criticism of it by the ruling party has heightened the challenge for the court monitoring the trial of the former prime minister by the accountability court. It raises the serious question of whether the trial can reach its conclusion and also be seen as fair.
Undoubtedly, the security establishment has already been sucked into the crisis with its apparent support for the judicial process, which becomes much more significant given the strains in the civil-military relations that had cast their shadow over the third Sharif term. The trust deficit that existed from the very outset persisted despite the change of the army guard twice. There have been some unresolved issues and Sharif’s own style of personalised governance remains the major irritant.
Surely, Panamagate and the judicial decision to take up the case fuelled perceptions of it being prompted by the khakis. The gap widened with some cabinet ministers and senior party leaders publicly accusing ‘that institution’ — euphemism for military intelligence. That may have forced the army chief to issue a public denial that the military has been involved in the matter.
It is apparent that the political crisis stemming from the Panama scandal and the removal of Nawaz Sharif has allowed the military greater space. The generals seem much more comfortable working with the new prime minister who has established at least a semblance of the institutional way of governance.
Regular meetings of the National Security Council have also allowed the military to bring the civilian leadership onto its page in relation to foreign and national security policies. It is certainly in the military’s interest to support the current political arrangement. That may be a compromise that both sides may find mutually useful. In the bargain, the PML-N is likely to stretch its rule to the next elections, giving the party a clear advantage.
It seems that senior party leaders may have been able to convince the former prime minister not to rock the boat. That may perhaps be the reason for Sharif’s more cautious approach at his news conference the other day. There was not even an implicit attack on the ‘establishment’, a marked shift from his rhetoric before his departure for London. His daughter Maryam too had taken that position in her speeches during the NA-120 by-election.
But it may not be so simple. It all will depend on how the trial in the accountability court proceeds. There is no indication that it will not stick to its six-month mandate to complete the trial. There is also little probability of the family getting away unscathed. Sharif’s probable conviction along with that of other family members will cause the situation to unravel and no one will be able to control it. Dangerous times lie ahead.
The writer is an author and a journalist.
Published in Dawn, September 27th, 2017