The Slatest

Pakistan’s Prospects for Democracy Weaken as Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif Is Disqualified

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif waves as he arrives to appear before an anti-corruption commission at the Federal Judicial Academy in Islamabad on June 15, 2017.

AFP/Getty Images

Pakistan faces political turmoil as the country’s Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office on Friday over undeclared assets brought to light in the 2016 Panama Papers leak. The democratically elected leader becomes the latest Prime Minister not to have completed a five-year term in office, in a country where civilian governments are often toppled by Pakistan’s powerful military, which has governed the country for approximately half of its 69-year-history.

The disqualification of Sharif—who was elected to the office three times, each with huge landslide victories—raises serious concerns over Pakistan’s road to democracy, as his ouster creates a political vacuum in the country that can be filled anytime by a military-backed government. In the past, resignations of prime ministers on allegations of corruption and wrongdoing have been followed by periods of dictatorship either led or supported by members of Pakistan’s military. In November 1996, for instance, the country’s only female prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, was disqualified by the Supreme Court over corruption allegations brought forth by her political rival. This led to a period of dictatorship in Pakistan, destroying the progress made by previous civilian governments to protect democratic rights of its citizens.

While it is true that Sharif is no saint, the story of his disqualification is not simple. As per the latest verdict of the apex court, Nawaz Sharif is not explicitly guilty of corruption but of violating Articles 62 and 63 of Pakistan’s constitution, which order office-holders and legislative members to be “sadiq” and “ameen”—vague terms for being honest and morally upright Muslims. These unexplained terms were written into the country’s constitution by a past military dictatorship and have often been deployed to intimidate political rivals. Interestingly, the Supreme Court has previously criticized the vagueness of the terms even as it now cites them in its disqualification of Sharif. “There is no definition of sadiq and ameen in Article 260 of the Constitution — a provision that provides description and meaning of words used in the green book,” observed Justice Dost Mohammad Khan after receiving petitions to disqualify Nawaz Sharif in 2014.

The joint investigation team assembled to probe Sharif’s sources of wealth included two members of Pakistan’s military establishment, who were also responsible for investigating a news leak that significantly impaired relations between the military and Nawaz Sharif’s government. Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times, an English language weekly in Pakistan, noted the lack of impartiality of those responsible for investigating allegations of corruption.

It is now clear that the military establishment is firmly in control of this project. The two gentlemen from the ISI and MI in this JIT are the same two who led the JIT investigations in the Dawn leaks case that created a serious rift between the civil and military leaders. Now we learn that all the “coordinators” are also from the same sort of military sources. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong in seeking such help. After all, civilians are wont to clutch at the military whenever they doubt their own neutrality or ability, as for example in critical help in conducting a census or in overseeing general elections. But the current case is of a different nature. We know that Mr Sharif is intensely disliked by the military establishment for one reason or another. A cursory overview of serving and recently retired military officers will testify to their bristling hostility against him even if the current top brass is not so overly inclined. Under the circumstances, the government has every right to demand that the JIT should not only do justice but also appear to be doing so. We are, after all, investigating a popularly elected leader who has won the confidence of the people of Pakistan and been prime minister twice before and, going by current polls, is poised to win again in 2018.

The Supreme Court of Pakistan that now adjudicates on the moral fiber of the country’s leadership is also the same body that has legally sanctioned every military coup to take place in Pakistan. Judges who went against these rulings were often made to retire, while the apex court ruled in favor of removing elected governments and even sentenced one prime minister to death on the behest of a military dictator. The ousted Sharif, who managed to push for peace with India in spite of criticism from the military and supported the restoration of Supreme Court and lower court judges suspended by military dictators, is their latest victim as democracy struggles to take root in Pakistan.