[“R]easons to look forward to & celebrate 2017” wrote Maryam Nawaz on December 31, 2016, while tweeting a government advert on power projects. She could have added some other reasons to her tweet: at the time, her father Nawaz Sharif looked like his friend Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan — unassailable electorally, facing no serious legal and judicial challenges and poised to cut the powerful military establishment down to size.
Nawaz Sharif’s political rivals, Imran Khan and Asif Ali Zardari, were facing their own demons. The former was facing legal investigations over his financial dealings while also battling accusations that he was bent upon disrupting the democratic system at the behest of some hidden forces. The latter was looking meek and defensive due to pressure from the same hidden forces.
The outgoing Chief Justice of Pakistan Anwar Zaheer Jamali, in the meanwhile, had all but binned almost six weeks of court proceedings over the Panama Papers that had Nawaz Sharif and his three children in political and judicial crosshairs throughout 2016 over their alleged offshore businesses and properties. Hearings in the case were now to resume virtually from scratch. This, coupled with the fact that new Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar had served as federal law secretary under Nawaz Sharif’s government in 1997, and before that as a counsel for the Sharif family, only reinforced forecasts that the worst was over for the beleaguered prime minister. “There’s an end to every storm,” Maryam announced on December 11, 2016.
And, perhaps most importantly, Raheel Sharif, Pakistan’s most popular army chief in recent times, was gone and replaced by the little known Qamar Javed Bajwa. As a prime minister looking to assert his authority, Nawaz Sharif was often shown in government-issued photos sitting behind a large desk while the new army chief sat in front of him in an office chair. These images, as opposed to ones of Raheel Sharif and Nawaz Sharif occupying drawing room chairs separated by a coffee table, were an obvious attempt to underscore who Pakistan’s chief executive was.
It took only a few weeks to reverse this.
Chief Justice Nisar’s decision not to become a member of the new Supreme Court bench hearing the Panama Papers case was the first indication. The mood on the bench, expressed through remarks by the honourable judges, also suggested that Nawaz Sharif was not going to have it easy any more. And sure enough, on April 20, 2017, two of the five judges on the bench disqualified him from holding public office for being dishonest and untruthful.
A final verdict still required the remaining judges to agree, but they wanted to see more evidence collected within the next 60 days by a joint investigation team that included one senior official each from the Military Intelligence (MI) and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), two intelligence agencies that work as the eyes and ears of the military establishment. The investigators came up with documents that only strengthened the charges of money laundering and illegal transfers of money abroad against Nawaz Sharif and his family. By the end of July, the entire bench was unanimous that he was not eligible to remain a member of the National Assembly and the prime minister.
The ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) tried to put on a brave (and rather defiant) face, but not without some initial anguish and confusion over who would replace Nawaz Sharif. His brother Shehbaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam both looked like they were vying for the top party slot as well as the premiership. After Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a dark horse but a Sharif loyalist, took over as the next prime minister, Nawaz Sharif set about rectifying the damage done to his public image.
Still, his homecoming march from Rawalpindi to Lahore in the second week of August was originally more a measure to gauge his own popularity than an act of rebellion against the powers that be. But by the time it ended, he was openly talking of his preference for the people’s court over the Supreme Court and the power of the vote over the power of the (unelected) judiciary. As a “desperate man” after his disqualification, the only way for Nawaz Sharif to survive politically was – and is – “to target the judiciary and the establishment”, says Lahore-based analyst Sohail Warraich.
This was a reversal of the strategy he had pursued earlier. “He ceded power to the establishment on such policy issues as relations with India and Afghanistan and security policy on Balochistan and Karachi,” says a political commentator who does not want to be named. Yet, the establishment could not let him complete him his five-year term as prime minister. “This has been hurting him badly since his ouster,” says the commentator.
A new Nawaz Sharif, thus, emerged from the ashes of the old. He positioned himself as an ideology-driven champion of an undiluted and not-led-by-the-finger democratic governance, replacing his earlier image of a leader who would not desist from taking any politically incorrect steps to come to, and stay in, power.
In less than two months, he was back. Not as prime minister but as the political boss of the prime minister.
Enjoying a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, his party employed some parliamentary artistry when it had the Senate pass the controversial Elections Act 2017 by a bare majority of just one vote (the senator who cast that vote is facing disciplinary action from his own party). The new law permitted individuals disqualified from holding public office to still be elected as leaders of political parties — a visibly Nawaz Sharif-specific provision. On October 3, 2017, he was duly re-elected as PMLN’s president, a post that many thought could split the party if it went to anyone but him, including to his brother or daughter.
Days earlier, Nawaz Sharif’s ailing wife Kulsoom Nawaz (now undergoing treatment for cancer in London) had won a by-election from NA-120, the National Assembly seat in Lahore he had to vacate after his disqualification.
The two events in quick succession gave Nawaz Sharif and his loyalists the confidence to claim that he was being punished for trying to hold the establishment accountable. “The use of law to change the mandate of the people must end,” he was quoted as telling his party after his re-election as its chief. Amid loud cheers, he promised to lead the PMLN to a decisive victory in the 2018 elections so that such practices could be brought to an end for good.
In saying all this, he was also assuring the national and provincial legislators of his party that he was here to stay and lead, and that the PMLN had the chance to win the next election as much as any other party, or perhaps even more. This worked, Warraich says. “[This] narrative … is keeping [Nawaz Sharif’s] party united and maintaining his voter base despite his disqualification.”
So far, there have been no large-scale defections from the PMLN and its internal rifts have remained manageable even if they have not entirely disappeared. Nawaz Sharif’s absence from the PMLN’s top tier or his disappearance into political quietness could have made both desertions and splits easier and more frequent.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, president of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, believes Nawaz Sharif’s strategy has accrued him others dividends too. “He has pushed the courts to the defensive. Now the judiciary has to explain its position,” he says. Recent remarks by Chief Justice Nisar were clearly in response to the allegations that the judiciary had treated Nawaz Sharif and his family differently from others such as Imran Khan.
Warraich has a similar opinion. To him, Nawaz Sharif seems to have won some significant victories already. “For example, the recent Supreme Court ruling against the reopening of the Hudaibiya Paper Mills case [involving almost the entire Sharif family] and slowdown in the [corruption trial] of former finance minister Ishaq Dar have come as a big relief for him.” As has Jahangir Tareen’s disqualification and subsequent resignation from the National Assembly and as the general secretary of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf.
Mehboob, therefore, believes Nawaz Sharif is in a better position now “to make a deal with the establishment” than he was as prime minister. Shehbaz Sharif being touted as the PMLN’s candidate for prime minister after the next polls is one sure sign of such a ‘deal’. He has always advocated a non-confrontational policy vis-à-vis the establishment.
Is Nawaz Sharif, then, on his comeback trail to become prime minister for a historic fourth time? “I doubt he and his children will get relief from their ongoing trials,” says the anonymous commentator. Mehboob, however, believes the military establishment will not be able to ignore him if people bring the PMLN back to power after the election. “He is a political reality and the establishment will have to one day talk to him.”
This article was published in the Herald's January 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a chief reporter at the daily Dawn in Lahore.