Hijacking an aircraft is not an offence you would normally associate with a man who stands on the verge of becoming the prime minister of his country. If the leader-in-waiting had also chosen to answer a charge of contempt of court by allowing a mob to storm the hearing and threaten the judges, that might be still more surprising. If the fabulously wealthy politician in question had, moreover, declared that in a period of two years, he paid $10 (Dh36.78) in income tax, you might be forgiven for believing that his rise to power must be a work of fiction.
In Pakistan, however, reality often outdoes the most imaginative fiction and all of the above is true of Nawaz Sharif, the man who has just achieved a remarkable comeback by winning an election and lining himself up to be Prime Minister for a third time.
First things first. The hijacking conviction — along with a formidable array of other criminal verdicts — was overturned in 2009 and Sharif’s declaration that he paid $10 of income tax between 1994 and 1996 must be set against the fact that he broke no law and stumped up another $60,000 in wealth tax. None the less, it will be fair to say that if the failure of Pakistan’s political system has a face, then Sharif’s cherubic features will once have fitted the bill.
That leaves one question hanging over the victor of this election: Can he possibly live down the memory of his first two stints as prime minister? In his political heartland of Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous province, Sharif’s supporters call him the “lion”. Can this 63-year-old lion possibly change his mane? Or is he fated to symbolise the worst of a political system based on patronage, power-hunger and preservation of privilege? Those closest to him insist that he is a changed man. Throughout the election campaign, his favourite daughter, Maryam, 39, had been his principal cheerleader. While canvassing voters from her bullet-proof car in the old town of Lahore, she told journalists: “He’s a thinker now. I think there’s no hunger or greed for power. This is the time he wants to do something for the country.”
The trouble is that when Sharif last had the chance to do something for Pakistan, things did not turn out well. His first term as prime minister between 1990 and 1993 ended in ignominy, when he was sacked by the president for alleged corruption. That experience meant that when he won the 1996 election — requiring the famous tax declaration on his nomination papers — Sharif harboured an obsessive desperation to cling to power. First, he rewrote the constitution to ban the president from ever sacking a prime minister again. Then Sharif moved to neutralise every other centre of power.
When parliament proved troublesome, another amendment made MPs legally obliged to vote according to the party line. As for the judiciary, his idea of responding to a charge of contempt was to boycott the hearing and send a mob of supporters instead, who duly ransacked the Supreme Court in 1997 and threatened the judges.
Along the way, Sharif’s last government armed the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, tested nuclear weapons (in response to earlier detonations in India) and blundered into an undeclared war that cost hundreds of lives by sending Pakistani troops deep into India-held territory during the Kargil affair in 1999. But there was one institution that Sharif failed to subdue: Pakistan’s all-powerful army. The prime minister tried his best, sacking the army chief, General Pervez Musharraf, while the latter was in mid-air, en route to Pakistan from an official visit to Sri Lanka. That decision sealed Sharif’s downfall. Desperate to prevent the general from getting back to the country and taking revenge by launching a coup, he ordered Karachi airport not to allow the plane to land. The runway of Pakistan’s busiest airport was duly blocked with three fire engines.
Meanwhile, Pakistan International Airlines flight PK805, an Airbus A300 with General Musharraf and 197 other passengers on board, was told that it could not land in Pakistan. There was a problem: The aircraft had insufficient fuel to go anywhere else. “I advised Karachi air traffic control that I had 198 souls on board, a limited amount of fuel and that if we were not allowed to land, we would lose the aircraft and that would be the end of the story,” the flight’s captain later recalled. At the last moment, with the plane down to seven minutes of fuel, the army took control of Karachi airport and allowed the Airbus to land. Once on the ground, Musharraf immediately overthrew Sharif, consigning him first to prison and then into exile.
The deposed prime minister paid the traditional price of political failure in Pakistan: Sharif was assailed by criminal cases and soon accumulated a battery of convictions. In 2000, he was found guilty of hijacking and corruption and banned from holding office for 21 years. He lived in luxurious exile in Saudi Arabia until 2007, when General Musharraf’s regime became so discredited and unpopular that opponents of military rule were allowed to return. Sharif flew back to Pakistan, but those court verdicts prevented him from contesting the last election in 2008.
All the convictions were overturned the following year, clearing the way for last Sunday’s triumph. The claim that Sharif is a changed man cannot be dismissed. Western diplomats speak privately of a more mature politician, ready to compromise in the interests of Pakistan. President Asif Ali Zardari, the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, is one of Sharif’s oldest political foes. The outgoing government was deeply unpopular and Sharif, whose PML-N party held 91 seats on the opposition benches, might have been expected to take his first opportunity to turf out the president’s administration. He chose not to.
Instead, Sharif’s restraint was one of the factors allowing the last government to be the first civilian administration in Pakistan’s history to serve a full term. Experts who observed the vindictive politician of old believe Sharif may indeed have changed his game. “He is more diplomatic and more pragmatic than he used to be,” says Osama Seddiqi, from the policy department at Lahore University of Management Sciences. “He still has a lot of issues, but he has learnt from taking on the military and judiciary head on.”
Other factors may also keep Sharif on the straight and narrow. Imran Khan, the cricket captain-turned-party leader, won at least 32 seats in this election, up from zero in the last parliament. Imran never had a realistic chance of winning outright, but he could now become a formidable opposition leader, capable of making Sharif pay a heavy price for any transgressions.
The fact that this election saw a turnout of about 60 per cent — exceptionally high by Pakistani standards — will strengthen the country’s democracy. Meanwhile, the local media is more diverse and outspoken than ever before, with a plethora of new television news channels. In one respect, nothing is likely to change. Pakistan’s tortured cooperation with the West against terrorism will remain the preserve of the army and the security establishment. The core leadership of Al Qaida remains based on the frontier with Afghanistan and Sharif, the arch pragmatist, will not turn away from America and the West.
On the contrary, he sent reassuring signals in his recent interview with the Sunday Telegraph. However, there remains the shadow cast by his record in office. As the results came in at his campaign headquarters, Sharif was asked about his mistakes in power. “There are so many things playing on my mind,” he replied. “I can’t remember those mistakes.”
— The Telegraph Group Limited, London, 2013