Confrontation looms in a polarized Pakistan
The Supreme Court's ouster of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif on asset concealment charges has set the country's rival parties on a collision course. Will the military eventually step in?
Pakistan celebrated its 70th Independence Day amid rising political polarization as ruling and opposition political parties joust over the supremacy of parliament and proposed plans to curb the powers of the influential military and judiciary.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz, or PML(N), has been cast into disarray since its leader Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified on July 28 on asset concealment charges.
It’s government, now led by Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former petroleum minister and budget airline founder who recently appointed a pro-Sharif Cabinet, has since called for a “new social contract” to make state institutions more beholden to the constitution and electorate.
The party recently suggested to draft a new constitution to ensure that the popular will is accepted and respected by parliamentarians and that elected officials are not easily removed on “concocted and flimsy” charges, as Sharif has claimed he was ousted on.
The PML(N) is now advocating for a new system, one that proposes to cut the power of the both the judiciary and military by amending Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which give sweeping powers to the courts to disqualify a democratically elected government and individual politicians for not being “honest and truthful.”
The party has not spelled out, however, how it plans to achieve the two-thirds majority in both house of parliament it needs to enact the required charter amendments. Even if the PML(N) succeeded in mustering support of all its allies and wins over the Muthahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), independents and other smaller represented entities, it still wouldn’t have the 70 votes needed to initiate the process in the upper house Senate.
The main opposition parties, including Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), have already announced they are opposed to any such move. Nor are other smaller opposition parties likely to subscribe.
The Functional Muslim League of Pir Pagara in Sindh, which has six seats in the lower house of parliament, has already announced that it would not be a part of the campaign. Religious parties, including government allies, have also said they would not support the repeal of Articles 62 and 63 of the constitution, which stipulate on matters related to the qualification and disqualification of parliamentarians.
The political jousting seems set to intensify in the wake of Sharif’s disqualification from office by the Supreme Court, a decision he has strongly contested on the grounds the ruling was not based on proven corruption or receiving kickbacks, but rather that he failed to declare a salary he received from his son’s United Arab Emirates-based company, Capital FZE.
The National Accountability Bureau (NAB) is set to file cases against Sharif, Maryam (his daughter), Hussain and Hasan (his sons), and retired Capt. Safdar (a son-in-law) relating to various assets that were deemed as disproportionate to their known sources of income.
All these cases will be filed in the NAB accountability court next month.
The Supreme Court has set a six-month deadline for the cases to be finalized. If found guilty, they could face imprisonment and confiscation of off-shore assets believed to be worth billions of US dollars.
A separate case has also been filed against incumbent Finance Minister Ishaq Dar for possessing assets beyond his known sources of income. The Hudabiyya Mills money laundering case, which was first filed by the NAB in 2000 against Sharif but later quashed by the Lahore High Court in 2014, is also being revived on the Supreme Court’s order.
Dar had given a confessional statement where he divulged information about the Sharif family’s alleged money laundering in the 1990s but later reneged on his under oath statement, saying it was recorded under duress.
The NAB will also investigate Nawaz’s friend, Sheikh Saeed; Musa Ghani, a nephew of Dar’s wife; Kashif Masood Qazi, the son of a retired officer from the London Stock Exchange; Javaid Kiyani, the former chairman of the Pakistan Sugar Mills Association; and Saeed Ahmed, president of the National Bank of Pakistan.
A defiant Sharif has denied all the charges, which he has characterized as a political witch hunt. In response, he set out on a public mobilization drive last week where he played the political victim card to strategic effect at a mammoth homecoming rally in Lahore.
It took the ousted leader four days to make the road trip from the capital of Islamabad to his hometown of Lahore as he mobilized his supporters along the way.
During his speeches, Sharif has taken critical aim against the five-member bench of the Supreme Court which disqualified him from office, insinuating their decision was more political than legal. “Five people have ignored the mandate of 200 million people,” he grumbled. “Someone tell me, why was I deposed?” he repeatedly asked at stops on his caravan tour.
He also vaguely suggested his grass roots supporters may eventually need to answer his call without elaborating, while railing against a deep-rooted conspiracy to oust him from the power without naming names but pointing indirectly in the direction of the military.
Sharif has repeatedly noted that no democratically elected Pakistani prime minister had ever completed his or her full tenure due to military coups and palace intrigues. His ouster comes ahead of elections scheduled for 2018. The military has not made any public statements on his court-ordered disqualification.
The opposition has claimed that public funds and other resources have been liberally utilized by the PML(N) government to stage a “senseless” power show at the recent pro-Sharif rallies. The events have received apparent strong grass roots support from government workers and laborers, many of whom traveled great distances to attend the rallies.
Opposition parties led by Imran Khan’s PTI have since threatened that they would rouse crowds ten times bigger than Sharif’s rallies if he conspired to “intimidate” the judiciary into ruling in his, his family’s and political allies’ favor.
During a joint Independence Day celebration this week at Liaquat Bagh Rawalpindi on Sunday, the PTI and Shaikh Rasheed’s Awami Muslim League (AML) openly threw their support behind the judiciary and military establishment.
They declared, if needed, that the nation will stand “as a rock” to protect the Supreme Court and the Joint Investigation Team (JIT) which conducted the preliminary inquiry into Sharif’s family. While the JIT has not come under any known direct threats, the Supreme Court has asked the government to provide its members protection.
With all the political rumbling, many fear the country may drift into political turmoil in the days ahead as both sides mobilize their supporters and question the legitimacy of the other side’s positions and claims.
While the opposition has come out in support of the military, it remains to be seen how the top brass would respond to any serious outbreak of political violence.
Some have nervously drawn parallels to the situation in 1948, the year after Pakistan’s birth as a nation, when founding father Muhammad Ali Jinnah died and the military seized power in the tumultuous vacuum.
The army remained in virtual power for over 32 years, while over the past seven decades no civilian government has completed its full tenure for various reasons. Despite Sharif’s protestations, that pattern seems set to hold.