Last Sunday’s victory by Kulsoom Nawaz, wife of Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, in a Lahore by-election was widely publicised by the Sharif camp as a major success. Yet, events since then have only shown the rapidly growing vulnerability of Pakistan’s former leader and his family, raising questions over their future.
Sharif’s dismissal under orders from the Supreme Court last July marked the culmination of a trial that continued for more than a year, triggered when the former prime minister’s three children were found to own substantial offshore wealth. The chance discovery of that wealth in the leaked ‘Panama leaks’ continues to fuel questions over the extent of the overseas wealth of Pakistan’s high and mighty.
To make matters worse for the former ruler, Ishaq Dar, the finance minister under Sharif, has also found himself facing an inquiry by Pakistan’s highest anti-corruption body. Dar is under investigation for building up considerable overseas wealth without a convincing explanation of exactly where it came from. Dar, whose son is married to one of Sharif’s daughters, has rapidly become a liability for the former prime minister in rebuilding his image.
If Pakistan would have indeed been a progressive democracy, a politician like Dar would have come under much greater moral pressure long ago to step down rather than eventually being forced out. Clearly, his refusal to resign, even after officials from the main anti-corruption agency visited his home, only suggests the severe paucity of democratic values in a country that indeed claims to have left the legacy of military rule far behind.
Coming out of the Lahore by-elections, the victory of the Sharif family seems short-lived. Maryam, the former premier’s daughter and one of the individuals accused in ‘Panama leaks’, who chiefly campaigned for her mother, has frequently cited conspiracy theories behind Sharif’s downfall.
Ironically, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), led by Sharif, continues to wield sizeable political authority in Islamabad and Punjab — Pakistan’s largest as well as politically and economically the most influential province. And some of Sharif’s most die-hard politicians continue to hold Cabinet ranks at both places, while vociferously defending him against the Supreme Court’s verdict.
As the Sharif family remains in London, where Kulsoom is undergoing medical treatment for a recently-revealed cancer, trouble around the former ruling family is brewing rapidly back home.
Accepting Supreme Court’s verdict
Sharif’s choices are abundantly clear. He can continue to defy the odds and repeatedly question the judgement as he has done so far, in the hope of ultimately making a political comeback. But the writing on the wall suggests that Pakistan will move on beyond the Sharif era, irrespective of how the former leader feels.
So far, there have been no signs of a groundswell in favour of the former leader. Though victory came in the hotly-contested Lahore constituency, which has firmly remained with the Sharif camp for years, the edge for Kulsoom was about a third of the lead that Sharif himself had gained in 2013. And while some of PML-N’s hard-core activists came out to vote, many fence-setters appeared to have stayed away, notwithstanding Sharif’s claim of a sinister conspiracy to oust him.
The best way forward for Sharif now lies in accepting the Supreme Court’s verdict, rather than showing a dogged defiance. With a history of PML-N’s activists at least once attacking the Supreme Court years ago, many Pakistanis will find it just too unpalatable to readily accept Sharif’s call. Any democracy can just not claim to follow globally accepted norms unless rule of law is accepted as a cardinal principal.
Meanwhile, another test-case for the former ruling family came on Friday. A judge of the provincial high court of Punjab had ordered the provincial PML-N government to publicly release an earlier report by another judge on the killings of 14 anti-government activists in 2014. Those killings of the followers of Allama Tahirul Qadri in Lahore unleashed widespread fear of the ruling party’s determination to go to any extent to stay in power. The follow-up to the verdict will not just be a crucial test case for the quality of Pakistan’s democracy, but if released, the report could shed light on the darker side of Pakistan’s democracy.
The irony of today’s Pakistan is simply just too glaring. Historically, many other countries have seen active campaigns by politicians seeking to make an aggressive push for a civilian democracy, replacing an un-representative ruling structure.
Pakistan had embarked on civilian rule almost a decade ago with the departure of General Pervez Musharraf, the last military ruler. But the country’s political class has so far failed to either consolidate civilian rule or refine the structures of governance for the benefit of the people. In Sharif’s case, many of his supporters make veiled references to the military continuing to manipulate power from behind. And yet the record of the civilian class in carrying out constitutional or political or legal reforms remains pathetic. That is why the victory for Sharif’s wife in the Lahore by-election will remain pyrrhic. It will neither salvage the former prime minister’s legacy nor build a more sustainable future for civilian democratic rule in the country.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.