Pakistan’s Sharif sets himself on a defiance-course

Pakistan’s Sharif sets himself on a defiance-course

Salman Rafi,
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Pakistan parliament in session

With Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification as prime minister of Pakistan, the tussle for power in Pakistan, particularly between the civil and military institutes or elected and a non-elected apparatus of the state, has reached new heights.  Most of the observers of Pakistani politics seem to believe that Sharif’s post-disqualification activism is strategically aimed not at his restoration as PM but at forcing Pakistan’s internal balance of power to tilt to the civil institutes, particularly the Parliament.

It is another thing if he can succeed in his objectives or not; for, an overwhelming majority of the people of Pakistan, particularly those based in Punjab, continue to believe that the (Pakistan) Army has a ‘genuine role’ to play in politics and rid the country of all of its ‘corrupt’ elements. Indeed, as Aqil Shah has argued in his recent book, The Army and Democracy, the Army’s self-perception as the (political) guardian of Pakistan goes a long way in developing its penchant for playing politics both directly and indirectly—something that conditions civil-military power tussle.

As of now, the disqualified Sharif is marching towards Lahore from Islamabad. While he and his party have refrained from directly attacking any state institute, it is obvious that Nawaz Sharif’s relations with the Army were far from stable. Indeed, he was sent home twice in the 1990s. The 1999 ouster was followed by Pervez Musharraf’s rule that lasted from 1999 to 2008. And ever since the beginning of his third term as Pakistan’s PM, he had been facing, what his party leaders call, “conspiracies to oust him.” What therefore is really surprising for many is not that he has been ousted but the fact that he did manage to stay in power for more than 4 years.

The four years were, however, not trouble-free. The Islamabad sit-in of Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf/Pakistan Justice Party did cause Sharif to lose significant space to the military. And although it had been reported earlier in 2013 that Nawaz Sharif himself would oversee the important portfolios of defence and foreign affairs, Pakistan remained devoid of a foreign minister until now. And with Chief of the Army Staff himself visiting or accompanying the PM on all important foreign tours, most of the critical foreign policy matters, particularly Pakistan’s foreign policy vis-à-vis Afghanistan, remained in the hands of the Army.

The apparent partnership on foreign policy was, however, not without disagreements. It was particularly vocal and obvious with regard to India. With Nawaz Sharif advocating a business oriented approach and making regular attempts at engaging India’s Modi at every opportunity, the disagreement did permeate into other foreign policy matters, particularly Afghanistan as well. In fact, it was as early as 2014 when Sharif’s foreign affairs adviser, Sartaj Aziz, told BBC in an interview that Pakistan was still making a distinction between ‘good and bad Taliban’, hinting at the Army’s domineering position in terms of deciding which group still qualified as an “asset” and which was a “liability.” The same disagreement resurfaced in 2016 when the so-called “dawn Leaks” happened—a news item that reported major differences between the Army and the government over anti-terror policy.  

And the way this disagreement evolved into a major episode of tussle was again an unambiguous evidence of Sharif’s troubled relations with the Army. This, however, did not lead to Sharif’s overthrow by the Army. One important reason for this was that the Army did no longer have at its disposal the notorious article 58 (2) (b) of the Pakistan constitution to directly clip the wings of democracy and oust a sitting PM using ‘constitutional means.’

Sharif’s disqualification, which has been termed as ‘soft coup’, could not have happened either through the parliament where he not only had, and till has, majority but also the support of the main opposition party, Pakistan Peoples’ Party (PPP).

However, the fact that Sharif, and Yousuf Raza Gilani before him, were disqualified through the Pakistan’s apex court is, in the opinion of some external observes of Pakistani politics such as Christine Fair, an evidence of how the apex judiciary has been carefully cultivated as an instrument of imposing a ‘soft-coup.’ The role of article 58 (2) (b) has been tactically replaced by other, now notorious, articles 62 & 63, triggering a debate in Pakistan on the question of whether a case of ‘bad morality’ could be used to disqualify a sitting prime minister.

Nawaz Sharif has been ousted, but the struggle is not going to die down anytime sooner. The new cabinet has its own foreign minister now, implying a radical departure from the past and break with the Army over foreign policy. Will it intensify the tussle? Sharif’s massive show of defiance does show that political rift is only going to widen in the months ahead, particularly just before general elections which are due to be held in mid-2018.

Unlike the previous ousters, the current ouster has led to a series of events that indicate not only a change in the political culture of Pakistan but also shows seeds of betterment. After all, what else can political leadership do than mobilize people on the question of civilian supremacy?

While many in Pakistan and outside still believe that Sharif’s activism has strong personal political underpinnings, it is difficult to state categorically that this mobilization will not have general political consequences both for Sharif’s own future and Pakistan’s general political dynamics.

Therefore, while the Panama verdict has been announced and PM declared disqualified, the case is not over yet. On the contrary, Sharif has tactically shifted the battle ground from courts to streets and roads, show-casing his political strength as well as his ability to stage a ‘counter-revolution.’ A lot depends upon the extent of support he can harness out of this march, called ‘homecoming, from Islamabad to Lahore. A lot will also depend upon the extent of support he can get from other parties, excluding of course PTI.

There are already talks of reinforcing the ‘Charter of Democracy’ between Sharif’s PML-N and Pakistan Peoples’ Party, a pact that was signed by Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto in 2006 and was an implicit agreement between the two parties on supporting each other in restoring democracy in Pakistan and on not becoming pawns in the hands of the ‘establishment.’ A revival of this charter would mean that Sharif’s anti-establishment defiance will become pro-democracy, at least in theory.

[Salman Rafi Sheikh is an independent journalist based in Pakistan. His areas of interest include politics of terrorism, global war on terror, ethno-national conflicts, foreign policies of major powers, application and consequences.]

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