By Dr Sarah Ashraf
The chronic inability of elected governments in Pakistan to complete their designated tenures serves as a constant reminder of the country’s arbitrary democratic credentials. Nawaz Sharif, disqualified from the office of Prime Minister today, is no aberration in the country’s tumultuous political history.
Sharif made history in 2013 by riding a wave of popular support that saw him returned to an unprecedented third term. However, allegations of economic maladministration, corruption, financial irregularities and institutional retardation dogged the period leading up to his ouster, intensifying with the release of the Panama Papers, which revealed questionable oversees financial holdings. In view of today’s judgement by the apex court, Sharif’s legacy will be his repeated failure to sustain his role in office. He now holds the dubious honour of having his all three of his tenures in office prematurely cut short by different executive arms of the state – first one by the President (1993), second by the Army Chief (1999) and third by the Supreme Court (2013).
For the first time in the history of the Pakistan, a high-ranking member of political legislature has been made accountable though due institutional process. The 7,000-plus-word verdict of the Supreme Court disqualifying Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif boils down to Article 62(1)(f) of the Pakistani Constitution, which enable the courts to disqualify a member of the national and provincial legislatures should he or she be proven not to be ‘Sadiq and Ameen’ (truthful and trustworthy).
This is not only positive in terms of setting a strong precedent for the future accountability of those holding public office. It may also go a long way in restoring public faith in strength of the country’s highest judicial authority. In addition, despite being regarded as the final arbitrator in national and political crises, the army has stayed resolutely out of this issue. This bodes well in terms of fostering confidence and hope in the emerging strength of civilian institutions.
What makes the Supreme Court’s verdict historic is its implications for public accountability and critical empowerment of the civilian institutions of state. At the same time, it will be interesting to see whether the apex court’s judgement translates establishes a precedent for holding other elected officials accountable. The grounds for Sharif’s disqualification lend themselves to an overwhelming number of public representatives holding office. Whether this verdict results in wider institutional accountability and formalised institutional processes remains to be seen.
What are the broader consequences for today’s Pakistan, a state with crumbling institutions, rife with corruption, and lacking in accountability, that is simultaneously battling an active militant insurgency, impending economic crisis, divisive sectarian and ethnic stresses? In the short term, Sharif will cease to be Prime Minister with immediate effect. This means the Parliament, consisting of the Senate (upper house) and National Assembly (lower house), will need to convene to elect an interim Prime Minister from the ranks of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML(N)). That may be any one of the top party stalwarts, possibly Defence Minister Khawaja Asif, Speaker of the National Assembly Sardar Ayaz Sadiq or Ahsan Iqbal heading the federal Planning and Development Ministry. Despite the post-verdict euphoria of leading opposition parties i.e. Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI) and the Pakistan’s Peoples Party (PPP), it is unlikely that an early election will be called. That can be done only by the order of the President on the advice of the Prime Minister, which will now be Sharif’s successor. (The next General Elections are due to be held in 2018).
In the interim some associated blowback can also be expected in the wake of today’s judgement. Stock markets, which had been steadily falling during the past two months of the trial, crashed as the ‘Panamagate’ verdict was issued. In anticipation, Pakistan’s rupee fell 3.1 per cent to 108.1 against the dollar earlier this month, its lowest level since December 2013. The political uncertainties that lie ahead will almost certainly discourage foreign investment, already at a low ebb due to security concerns posed.
The PML (N) still boasts an overwhelming majority in the national legislature – 209-seat majority in the 342-seat house of the National Assembly. This reflects Sharif’s popularity, particularly in the economically and politically significant Punjab province. Any attempts by opposition parties to rally public support for early elections may be met with violent opposition from fiery PML(N) supporters on the streets. It can be therefore that the security situation in the country may become even more precarious in the coming months.
However, one important facets of Pakistani affairs may remain relatively unscathed by today’s verdict – namely its foreign policy and counter-terrorism operations. As Prime Minister, Sharif provided no clarity on the country’s strategic direction, instead choosing to focus narrowly on domestic political survival and infrastructure projects. Even the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), widely touted as his government’s brain-child, had been inaugurated by General Parvez Musharraf. Similarly, the various military operations (from 2002 to the present) against Islamist and militant groups, notably Operations Al-Mizan, Rah-e-Haq, Sher-e-Dil, Zalzala, Sirat-e-Mustaqeem, Rah-e-Raast, Rah-e-Nijaat, Koh-e-Sufaid, Zarb-e-Azb, and most recently Rad-ul-Fasaad, were initiated unilaterally by the Pakistani military establishment.
Thus, while today’s developments are significant, they’re only one part of a larger kaleidoscope that continues to be shaken. Pakistan is and will remain a fractured political entity. Until that changes, no single development will ever dictate the course of its history.