As Sharif clings on in Pakistan, smooth transition unlikely

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Pakistan's Prime Minister arrives for his appearance before a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) on June 15, 2017. Photo: AFP / Aamir Qureshi

If – as is widely anticipated – Pakistan’s Supreme Court returns an adverse verdict on the financial dealings of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his family, the political fallout is likely to be messy. Following a recent judicial probe, disqualification from office of the ruling members of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) is now the most likely scenario. But if that comes to pass, what happens next? The indications are that there will not be a smooth democratic transition. 

The Sharif family has so far failed to establish a cogent money trail to account for assets which appear out of proportion to their legitimate income. During proceedings on Thursday, the court said that if Nawaz’s children do not provide the details of the sources of their investments in London’s upscale Mayfair district, there will be consequences. “We will be forced to take a decision against the holders of public offices,” the court warned. The court may well hand down a verdict next week.

The hearings started last year when a petition was filed in the apex court by opposition parties challenging the legitimacy of Nawaz’s overseas assets, as disclosed in the Panama Papers.

After protracted hearings spanning several months, the court gave a verdict on April 20, with two out of five judges calling for the Prime Minister’s disqualification but the majority deciding in favor of a further probe to determine his culpability. The court constituted a Joint Investigation Team (JIT), ordering it to report within 60 days. The JIT submitted its report on July 10, claiming a “significant gap/disparity” between “the known and declared sources of income and the wealth accumulated” by the prime minister, his daughter Maryam Nawaz and sons Hussain and Hassan Nawaz.

A party divided

So far the response of the ruling PML(N) has been straightforward. Its vilification of the JIT, and of the judiciary and military establishment, has set the stage for a fierce showdown. “If you conspire against Nawaz Sharif, he will return stronger than before and will become PM for the fourth, fifth time. Stop him if you can,” Maryam Nawaz declared before the JIT. The Prime Minister’s Special Assistant, Asif Kirmani, warned opponents: “You started this game but we are the ones who will end it.”

Independent observers say the party may try to rally its supporters on the streets if the Supreme Court’s decision goes against it – provided the party does not disintegrate first. Rumors doing the rounds in Islamabad suggest a sizeable faction of the party’s parliamentarians are ready to disavow Nawaz if he is disqualified. 

Arbab Lutfullah, a nephew of Arbab Ghulam Rahim, the party’s former Chief Minister of Sindh province, has already left PML(N) to join the Pakistan People’s Party. Punjab Revenue Minister Mian Atta Muhammad Maneka has also resigned from office, albeit under the cover of “personal reasons.”

Nisar had earlier obtained a firm commitment from Nawaz that he would resign to save the party; however, the prime minister instead yielded to pressure from those urging him to stay on

Zulfiqar Khosa, a former PML(N) governor of Punjab, said in a press conference that a “forward bloc” opposed to Nawaz will emerge soon, adding that 70 PML(N) parliamentarians had been in touch with him.   “People from his close circle want Nawaz Sharif to resign,” he said. 

One senior party leader told Asia Times it would only be “a matter of time” before the party split into several factions following Nawaz’s disqualification. The party leader said a score of party members was already in contact with Chaudhry Shujaat Hussain, chief of the Pakistan Muslim League (Q) to form a “grand” Muslim League.”

Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, the current PML(N) interior minister, is also known to have strong views at odds with the party leadership on the matter of how to proceed following the prime minister’s resignation as well as the “irresponsible conduct” of some of the federal ministers who, according to Nisar, brought the party to its present disastrous situation. He has reportedly remarked that “only a miracle can save Nawaz.” Nisar had earlier obtained a firm commitment from Nawaz that he would resign to save the party; however, the prime minister instead yielded to pressure from those urging him to stay on.   

The PML(N) has an overall majority in parliament, with 189 of 340 seats. Had Nawaz resigned gracefully on the advice of the party’s saner elements and appointed someone of his choosing to run the government until next year’s elections, he would have avoided many of the difficulties he is now faced with. He failed to listen to the right people, however – and, having refused to jump, he looks set to be pushed.

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