Sharif Out

What the dismissal of Pakistan’s prime minister means for the country’s democratic future.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media after appearing before an anti-corruption commission at the Federal Judicial Academy in Islamabad, Pakistan, on June 15. 

Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images

On Friday morning, Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified Pakistan’s prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, from holding office. Sharif responded by stepping down, making him the latest in a long line of prime ministers whose five-year terms were cut short, often by military coups. Elections are set for 2018, where someone from Sharif’s PML-N Party—which needs to replace him—will likely face off against the demagogic former cricket star Imran Khan, who is currently in opposition.

Sharif was prime minister twice in the 1990s; although he was once seen as close to the military establishment, which holds de facto power in the country, he has run afoul of it in recent years, thanks to his push for closer economic ties with India, among other issues. The court’s decision came after the release of the Panama Papers brought suspicion on Sharif and his children for corruption and shady financial dealings. Sharif has long had a reputation for business acumen and a passion for development projects, such as the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. But he has also long been suspected of hiding chunks of his massive wealth.

To discuss what Sharif’s downfall means for the future of Pakistan and the region, I spoke by phone with Umair Javed, a columnist at Dawn, Pakistan’s most widely read English-language newspaper. During the course of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed why Pakistan–India peace remains so difficult, what Pakistan has in common with Russia, and whether Sharif’s downfall will pave the way for formal military control of the country.

Isaac Chotiner: What is your main takeaway from what happened on Friday?

Umair Javed: This was an act of the Supreme Court asserting its position in the political process. There’s a clause in the Constitution that allows the Supreme Court to basically expand its remit to anything that it deems is essentially a matter of public importance, and it has been doing that repeatedly on a number of things, including things like privatizing public sector enterprises, election-related malpractice, and now what it deems are essentially corruption-related cases. I think this is one sort of very clear example of a nonelected institution in the state that has historically been subordinate to the military and also the political elite that is now very clearly marking space for itself.

What you just described would probably, in most cases, be seen as a positive thing by many people. Do you think it is in Pakistan’s case?

The principle contradiction in Pakistan’s case would be that representative institutions— parliament, the legislature in general—are weak. I think what you essentially have is a Supreme Court establishing full command. … It’s not a check-and-balance situation. It’s basically that the parliament will remain subordinate while the military and the Supreme Court operate as partners of sorts in the political system. There’s no check, per se, on the court itself, and that, I think, is worrying, at least from a liberal democratic perspective.

Would this have happened without the military’s OK?

There are some people who say that this was all the military’s doing. I don’t particularly subscribe to that view. But the military certainly emboldened the court’s position on this front. There were two military representatives in the investigation team appointed by the court. I think all of that ties into this larger equation, which basically suggests that the military was backing the court’s decision.

Do you think the corruption allegations are true?

They’re true in the sense that, yes, he is most likely involved in some sort of corruption. It’s just that none of these accusations have ever been proven in a court of law, and they still haven’t, at least not yet. The fact is that he wasn’t convicted for corruption. He’s not being sent home for laundering money or misappropriating public resources. He’s being sent home for a completely different thing. It’s a technicality related to his election form, but the court has asked for an accountability trial to be held. So I think that will eventually establish whether Nawaz Sharif was corrupt, legally speaking, or not. Informally, I think pretty much everyone in Pakistan knew that he’s had his hand in the till for quite some time.

I know it’s a very inexact comparison, but in Russia you have a situation with Vladimir Putin where he started going after all these oligarchs who, I think it could very well be argued, were corrupt, but the political nature of the prosecutions was, nonetheless, extremely worrying, even if the underlying charges were true. What do you think of that as a comparison?

I think that’s a pretty good comparison. I think the entire process was driven by the need to be seen as sort of doing justice in some way, rather than following ethical, legally binding procedures.

So then how much damage do you think this might do to Pakistani democracy?

It’s not the same as the Constitution being abrogated by the military and a coup taking place, so the damage is certainly less than something outright like that happening. The damage is more indirect. The damage will happen to Pakistan’s political party system. The PML-N was looking to essentially coast to another victory before the Panama Papers leak happened. They’ll now be rushed into a leadership transition. The way that the party is structured, it was built around Nawaz Sharif and his immediate family. So now when you take him out of the equation and you file corruption charges against all of his immediate family members, the party will then have to have a leadership transition. The other thing that’s going to happen is that the general discourse around his disqualification will be that the opposition is being partly supported by the establishment, by the military itself. This will enable defections. Essentially what’s happening is that the parties are weakened in the process, especially the party currently in government. For Pakistan’s democratic health, I think that’s damaging. Obviously, I think the procedural democracy will continue. We will still have elections.

The other, more direct consequence is the growing power of the Supreme Court and its ability to take up issues and rule on particular things that are historically the domain of other institutions. I think that is also worrying for the representative character of Pakistan’s democracy.

Why do you think the military establishment wanted this? Was it mostly about Nawaz’s push for closer relations with India?

I think their basic beef with Nawaz was two things. One was India, but I think they put the India agenda on a back burner by 2014. [Prime Minister Narendra] Modi’s election in India obviously helped the military’s cause as well, because it was just much harder to make a case for normalizing relations with India when you have a madman leading the government.

Tell me about it.

I think the thing that doesn’t get noted as much is that the military has consistently asked for a more direct role in managing relations with China, especially around the China–Pakistan Economic Corridor. A year and a half ago, I think, the military floated a proposal of establishing this apex national body that would have executive control over all matters related to CPEC and investment that China is putting in Pakistan, and they wanted a seat at the table as far as that body is concerned. Nawaz Sharif has consistently said that, no, the process will be civilian-led. Even though the military is still quite heavily involved, I think he thought that civilians should maintain the face as far as this liaison with China is concerned. I think that’s also something that the military is very mindful of, and I think they wanted to push the ball back on that front.

Does all this mean that Imran Khan is likely to win next year?

I think his chances have definitely gone up. They’re much higher now than they were before any of the leaks happened and, obviously, before Nawaz Sharif was taken out. I think he’s going to rely on people switching allegiances from the PML-N, and those switches will happen based on a number of presumptions. But I think he is in a good position right now to consolidate. This was his holy grail, right? This is what he has been whining on and on about, how he wanted to take out Nawaz Sharif. He has done that. Now his challenge is to translate that into electoral votes.

I still don’t think he’s in any position to form the next government. But I think the longer this goes on, the longer the leadership transition within the PML-N is and the more complicated it becomes, I think the stronger Imran Khan will get.

What is Sharif’s legacy?

I think his primary legacy will be this macroeconomic consolidation that they have talked about for the last four years, generally making sure that CPEC-related investments were initiated. I think he sees himself as the guy who brought growth to Pakistan or the guy who brought some level of economic development to Pakistan.

Do you agree with that?

Yeah, to a certain extent. I think he was the most growth-oriented politician that we’ve had so far. We haven’t had many in the first place, but I think he was the one with the most coherent idea of what constitutes growth. He was neoliberal in the sense that he was pro-markets, that he believed in private enterprise and all of that. I think he was more coherent on these things than any other politician in Pakistan right now, definitely more so than Imran Khan. I guess that is definitely his legacy, but other than that, I think his legacy, at least from a more critical perspective, is that he failed to capitalize on what was a very dominant political position in 2013. He wasn’t able to convince the military of his foreign policy agenda.

So what’s your biggest fear about what might result from all this?

I think my biggest fear right now is that party infighting is going to lead to lots of defections, just a greater deal of acrimony in the political system that will lead to a run on the rupee eventually. Basically, whatever economic growth that Pakistan has managed to put together in these last two or three years, I think we’ll squander that over the next year and a half. We’ll be back in a situation where there’s a greater deal of uncertainty, and that’s going to be bad for Pakistan’s economy in the long run and obviously for Pakistan’s democracy as well. Because then you feed into that cycle of people saying that civilian politicians are simply incapable of governing and they’re incapable of resolving their differences, so we should get the military to play a role in managing the country again.