Opinion: With or without Nawaz Sharif by S. Akbar Zaidi

Nawaz Sharif has been here before, most famously in 1999, when his government was overthrown by military dictator Pervez Musharraf and he was charged with attempted murder and the hijacking of a Pakistan International Airlines airplane going from Colombo to Karachi. Mr. Sharif, who was serving a life term in prison, was tried and convicted and given a prison term of 14 years, fined 2 crore rupees, and was disqualified from contesting elections for 21 years. Eventually, he was sent into exile. Perhaps unexpectedly, he returned to Pakistan in 2007 when General Musharraf was still in power as President, albeit considerably weaker than in his previous eight years. Gen. Musharraf himself was overthrown in 2008, and is now an absconder in a case of treason against him, living in Dubai and London. Mr. Sharif, since then, took part in the elections in 2013 and became Prime Minister of Pakistan for the third time. Four years into his term, he was deposed from power and disqualified from holding public office, not by the military as has been the pattern since 1958 but on the basis of a judgment by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. Since July 2017, a verdict on the duration of the dismissal was awaited. On April 13, the Supreme Court disqualified the former Prime Minister for life, which means that Mr. Sharif can never contest elections or hold public office ever again.

Duration of disqualification

According to Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution of Pakistan, “A person shall not be qualified to be elected or chosen as a member of Majlis-e-Shoora (Parliament) unless he is… sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen ”. This formed the basis of the July 2017 Supreme Court decision to disqualify Mr. Sharif on account of him not declaring his full and true income at the time of filing his election papers in 2013. Since Article 62(1)(f) did not specify the period of disqualification — with legal opinion arguing, based on precedence, that this could be for a year or for the five-year term of Parliament — the

Supreme Court, in its unanimous decision, decided that the period is to be for life.
The judgment states that since there is no mention of the duration of disqualification under Article 62(1)(f), the court judged the disqualification to be for life. Amendments were made to Article 62 by General Zia-ul-Haq based on his rather austere notion and reading of Islam and its principles, and constitute parts of what was the particularly infamous Eighth Amendment to the Constitution of Pakistan, in 1985. Many of the required qualities of Members of Parliament — that they be “sagacious, righteous, honest and ameen ” — are said to be based on the Sunnah of Prophet Muhammad. The most recent judgment has been interpreted to “reinforce the fact that Pakistan is a theocratic state” by a member of the Pakistan Bar Council and is seen as a “religious sermon”, reportedly by a member of the Sharif family.

The judgment cleverly makes the case that when the Eighth Amendment was up for review by Parliament, and was subsequently overridden by the 18th Amendment in 2010 under President Asif Ali Zardari, the amendments to Article 62 were retained. It argues that Parliament felt the need to retain such characteristics of its own members. In fact, Mr. Sharif and his party have been criticised for retaining these passages and for not expunging them when the Eighth Amendment came under review. Nevertheless, the court judgment has been called “harsh and severe” by many in the legal fraternity, and as “vindictive” by Mr. Sharif himself. Importantly, this judgment sets the precedent to allow the Supreme Court of Pakistan to disqualify any elected representative “for life”.

Political consequences

Since Mr. Sharif was disqualified in 2017, there was little chance of him seeking re-election in the elections expected in July this year. Not only was he disqualified by the Supreme Court, he was also not allowed to stay on as president of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N). He subsequently made his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif, the incumbent Chief Minister of the Punjab, president. Mr. Sharif had also announced that when (and not if) his party wins the election, his brother would be the party’s prime ministerial candidate. Much of this stays the same on account of the latest verdict.

Since his ouster last year, Mr. Sharif has been touring the country holding very large rallies and jalsas. He has even made huge inroads into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) is in government, suggesting that perhaps the province wanted some change, never having voted back an incumbent government. Mr. Sharif has been playing the victim and seeking sympathy — but not just that. For many Pakistanis, their economic and security situation is far better than it has been since 2007 — a remarkable achievement for which Mr. Sharif and the PML-N deserve credit. Pakistan’s GDP growth rate is going to be the highest in 11 years, there is visible evidence that terrorism and bombings are on a sharp decline, and the country’s persistent energy crisis seems to have abated. Moreover, the large crowds coming to the PML-N jalsas also see a rather unimpressive opposition, whether in the form of the PTI or Mr. Zardari’s distraught Pakistan Peoples Party. Despite the fact that Mr. Sharif will not be the next Prime Minister, the general sense is that if there are free and fair elections, the PML-N ought to still win the Punjab and the largest number of seats in the National Assembly. However, Mr. Sharif may even be in jail long before the elections if the corruption charges that are being investigated are proven.

Increasingly, the consensus is shifting towards the very high probability that elections in Pakistan will be neither free nor fair, even by Pakistani standards. A ‘suitable’ result — with the PML-N cut to size and with the PPP and the PTI sharing government — seems to be in the process of being concocted. The hijacking of the Balochistan Provincial Assembly in February, by what the newspaper The Friday Times calls the ‘Miltablishment’, prior to the elections to Pakistan’s upper House, the Senate, in order to takes seats away from Mr. Sharif’s party was yet another signal that something was amiss. Moreover, the hounding of the press and the throttling and banning by the same unelected powers of the most popular television and media house Jang/Geo — which, even in this environment, has raised numerous issues criticising the military and the judiciary — is being called ‘pre-poll rigging’ by PML-N members.

Mr. Sharif’s fate seems sealed for now, as it was two decades ago. Yet, back then he made a spectacular comeback. In his third term, he was more successful than any other elected national leader since 1985 and far better than all his previous years in office. The only constant in Pakistani politics is that it is foolish to make predictions.

( S. Akbar Zaidi is a political economist based in Karachi. He teaches at Columbia University in New York, and at the IBA in Karachi. His opinion was published orginally on “The Hindu ” website. )

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