THE first phase of a historic accountability trial of former prime minister and PML-N supremo Nawaz Sharif and his children may end with further confusion and uncertainty about the legal and political fate of Mr Sharif.

In comments to the media in London yesterday, Mr Sharif has indicated his preference to return to Pakistan after his ailing wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, regains consciousness.

With no clarity on when her condition is likely to improve, Mr Sharif has requested the NAB court to reserve its judgement in the first of three accountability references against him until he can return to Pakistan and is present in the court to hear the verdict.

With the NAB court scheduled to announce its verdict tomorrow, it remains to be seen if Mr Sharif’s request will be entertained. Certainly, both Mr Sharif and the NAB court are in a difficult situation.

The NAB court must comply with the orders of the Supreme Court to wrap up the accountability trials at the earliest. In addition, regardless of what the verdict in the first reference against Mr Sharif is, it is likely to affect the PML-N’s poll campaign and perhaps the election outcome itself.

Meanwhile, Kulsoom Nawaz’s medical condition is undeniably serious and Mr Sharif’s desire to see his wife conscious before he returns to Pakistan, where he could be jailed immediately, is understandable.

Yet, Mr Sharif left Pakistan with the explicit guarantee that he would return to Pakistan and continue to attend the NAB trial as mandated by the court. And while it is possible to sympathise with Mr Sharif regarding his wife’s immediate medical condition, both Mr Sharif and his daughter Maryam Nawaz have attended their trial in the Islamabad NAB court while Kulsoom Nawaz has been receiving medical care in London.

Therefore, if the court declines to delay announcing its verdict, Mr Sharif should return to Pakistan immediately and be present in court when the judgement is announced.

From a political perspective, it is apparent that the absence of Mr Sharif has immediately and significantly impacted the PML-N’s election campaign. Shahbaz Sharif and the rest of the PML-N leadership do not appear to have ignited the public imagination, and the PML-N appears to remain a party that responds primarily to the political appeal of Nawaz Sharif.

That the country’s major political parties are so dominated by personalities who appear to be a permanent part of the political landscape is certainly disappointing from a democratic perspective.

It was hoped that democratic continuity would help identify and empower the next generation of political leadership in the country, but an across-the-board failure to foster democratic traditions in political parties appears to have stifled the latter’s evolution.

If Nawaz Sharif is determined to remain the face and identity of the PML-N, he must make a difficult personal decision and return to Pakistan immediately.

Published in Dawn, July 5th, 2018

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