YESTERDAY by Kiran Stacey in New Delhi and Farhan Bokhari in Islamabad
Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan’s ousted prime minister, stood in front of a packed convention centre in Islamabad yesterday and announced the most spectacular comeback of his three-decade political career.
In July the country’s supreme court had stripped him of power after ruling that his failure to explain the sources of his considerable wealth made him unfit for office either as prime minister or assembly member. Yet just two months later he has been elected president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party. Cheered to the rafters by hundreds of party officials, Mr Sharif told those assembled: “There have been attempts again and again to exit me, but you will always keep giving me an entry again and again.”
His future still hangs in the balance — he may be indicted, along with three of his children, within days on related criminal charges and, if found guilty, could yet serve a lengthy prison sentence. But the political fight over who runs the country is not simply about his immediate future. It has exposed the internal strife that exists between the powerful armed forces and its civilian government, raising fears over the stability of the region and even the US role in Afghanistan.
Pakistan’s Imran Khan seeks to capitalise on arch-rival’s woes Mr Sharif’s return to the top of the party is a provocative move — a clear signal to the military that the PML-N will not easily back down.
Mr Sharif, the three-time prime minister, has been accused of corruption before. For his opponents, the supreme court verdict was not only a vindication but also a coming of age for Pakistan’s fragile democracy: a rare example of a civil institution defying the power of a senior politician.
A rally in support of ousted prime minister Nawaz Sharif in Gujarat in August © AFP
“This judgment is one of the things that gives me great confidence in Pakistan’s democracy,” says Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician and long-term opponent of Mr Sharif. “Corruption is only going to be tackled if we have strong enough institutions to do so.”
Yet some are now concerned that this may not be as great a triumph for Pakistan’s civil institutions as many had hoped, and rather that it marks a more worrying shift in power back towards the military. Such a move is likely to mean restrictions on democratic freedoms, as well as a hardening of policy towards its neighbour India.
But it also has consequences for other world capitals. It raises the prospect of a more belligerent Pakistan just as the US is trying to apply pressure on the country to do more to tackle terrorism on the border with Afghanistan. For Beijing, however, it offers an even stronger alliance with the army as it looks to protect the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the $55bn centrepiece of its new Silk Road project.
“Although the army’s exact role in [the ousting of Sharif] is difficult to decipher, it did make its feelings about the case known to the judiciary,” says Ahmed Rashid, an expert on Pakistan’s politics and a contributor to the Financial Times. “The supreme court knew which way the army wanted to go, and obliged.”
He adds: “Pakistan’s democracy is very fragile, and this just makes me even more pessimistic about its future.”
Pakistan’s history as a democratic country has been one of a constant power struggle between the civilian state and the armed forces — the country has been under military rule for almost half its 70-year existence. Even now, nearly a decade since civilian rule was re-established, government officials say the army has an almost complete stranglehold over foreign policy.
Soldiers mark 70 years of independence in Islamabad on August 14 © AFP
Few individuals personify the battle between the two institutions more than Mr Sharif himself.
He first came to power in 1990 as the head of the political faction loyal to the former military ruler Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq. But he has been feuding openly with the army since trying to replace Pervez Musharraf as its chief in 1999, an action that prompted Mr Musharraf to oust him in a coup. In recent years, tensions have been reignited by Mr Sharif’s attempt to form a rapprochement with India, including welcoming Narendra Modi, the country’s prime minister, to his granddaughter’s wedding in 2015.
Some say the army wants more control over the economy, without having to take on the burdens of political office. “The army has been quite worried about the direction the economy is going in, especially with the declining foreign currency reserves,” says one observer. “They want to avoid any kind of financial crisis.”
Senior generals have meanwhile led a campaign against Mr Sharif’s alleged corruption, often referring to his family’s ownership of apartments overlooking London’s Hyde Park. In 2000, Mr Musharraf said: “We believe the money used to buy these apartments was stolen from the people of Pakistan.”
Mr Sharif denies financial wrongdoing. But in April 2016 a leak of documents held by the law firm Mossack Fonseca — the so-called Panama Papers — detailed how Mr Sharif’s children owned the London flats through offshore companies, and had used them to secure a £7m loan from Deutsche Bank.
Mr Sharif says the flats were bought using money from a family business.
Supporters of the Pakistan army say it was these documents, rather than any action it took, which eventually brought Mr Sharif’s downfall. The legal fight, they add, was led by Mr Khan, who brought the case to the Supreme Court.
“This all started because I went to the supreme court after the Panama Papers [leak],” Mr Khan says, speaking to the FT at his estate in the hills high above Islamabad. “It was the supreme court that did this.”
Mr Khan denies accusations by PML-N members that the army has used him as a convenient proxy. Referring to Mr Sharif’s early political history, Mr Khan says: “The PML-N has been nurtured and manufactured by the army. It is a party that is dependent on the establishment and assumes everyone else is too.”
Opposition leader Imran Khan brought the supreme court complaint that led to the downfall of Nawaz Sharif. Those close to the army paint a different picture. While the generals were careful not to intervene directly in the court case and subsequent investigation, they say the institution helped to guide the process in more subtle ways.
“Was the army behind this? Definitely,” says a recently retired general. “The judges would not have had the courage to do what they did otherwise.”
The army denies it had anything to do with the ousting, insisting it was purely a “civilian matter”.
However several generals made coded public statements, communicating their feelings both to the judges and the wider public.
The clearest example came two weeks after the Panama Papers were published, when Raheel Sharif, then the head of the army, dismissed six of his own officers for corruption.
The action was not linked to the prime minister, but its timing was widely seen as sending a message to the civilian government. In a speech a week later, General Sharif said: “Enduring peace and stability [will not be established] unless the menace of corruption is uprooted.”
Some allege direct contact between generals and judges, though the head of the army denied this in a recent briefing of members of the Pakistan national assembly. Either way, say people close to the military, the message was made clear enough. “They said, ‘[the Sharifs] need to be removed because they are corrupt — we will give you our full support, do not hesitate to do this’,” says the retired general.
A former minister with close ties to the military says the message carried an implicit threat. “They did not exactly threaten a coup, they did not have to,” he says.
The army did play a more formal role in one stage of the process. Two brigadiers served on the special investigative panel established by the supreme court to look into the allegations. The panel took just 60 days to compile a 275-page dossier of detailed accusations.
The report included details of how Mr Sharif’s wealth suddenly, and inexplicably, jumped during his first term as prime minister between 1990 and 1993. Its investigation was so thorough that it was able to identify an apparent forgery by Mr Sharif’s daughter Maryam by analysing the font used on a document she submitted to the panel.
Mr Sharif has said his money came from the sale of a family business in Saudi Arabia, but has not given a detailed rebuttal to every point raised in the investigation. Some analysts worry that regardless of the legitimacy of the charges, the army should not be involved in an investigation into a politician, especially in a country where corruption allegations are rife.
“The army has records on every powerful politician in Pakistan,” says Mr Rashid. “All it needed to do was hand its information over.”
In the end, the supreme court found against Mr Sharif on just one of the charges levelled against him: not being fully “honest” and “trustworthy” about his wealth when filing his nomination papers for the 2013 election — a provision put into the Pakistan constitution to prevent politicians using their wealth to buy power. His departure meant that no civilian prime minister has ever completed a full term in Pakistan.
“They got him for such a stupid thing, that is what makes this even more questionable,” says the recently retired general. “I am not sure how history will judge all this.”
That judgment may depend on whether the dogged Mr Sharif wins his immediate battle to return to the top of the country’s politics.
In recent weeks he has scored a couple of successes. His wife Kulsoom Nawaz won his vacated assembly seat in a by-election last month, and days later the senate passed a law that allowed him to make his return as party leader. Even if he does not return for a fourth term as prime minister his continued influence over the party seems assured.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a Sharif ally who has replaced him as prime minister, told the FT: “If we get re-elected next year, Nawaz Sharif will be the real prime minister . . . The legal leadership is one thing, who people see as the leader is something else.”
Mr Khan, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party came second in the assembly by-election in Lahore, disagrees, saying the PML-N’s reduced majority shows how voters are turning their backs on corrupt politicians. “There was a 30 per cent decline in their vote,” he says. “It is all over for the Sharifs.”
Whether it is Mr Sharif, Mr Khan or someone else who becomes prime minister at next year’s general election, their most pressing task might be to reassert the dominance of the civilian government over the armed forces.
Already there are signs of fresh tensions between the new government and the military. On Monday, Ahsan Iqbal, the interior minister, threatened to resign after being barred from entering the court dealing with Mr Sharif’s case, by paramilitaries from the Pakistan rangers. “Two states cannot work parallel within a state,” said Mr Iqbal.
People are asking a familiar question in Pakistan: could there be another period of army rule? The former government minister with ties to the military says: “Could there be another coup? Could the current head of the army end up as prime minister? It is not probable, but it is possible.”
The army itself dismisses such suggestions. In September Qamar Javed Bajwa, the new head of the army, said in a speech: “[The armed forces] provide full input to state institutions as Pakistan’s prosperity and future is linked to the strengthening of institutions.”
But Mr Rashid interprets it differently. “The country now has a weak, inefficient and compromised political leadership. That suits the army perfectly,” he says. “Why should there be another military coup when so much is under their control already?”
Search Market View