What next? Nawaz Sharif plots alternative future for party and Pakistan
Former Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif has been freed from jail, having served 10 weeks of a 10-year prison term. He was convicted by a court in July 2018 over possession of undeclared property in London, allegedly purchased with money beyond his declared means of income.
He was released on bail, along with his daughter Maryam Nawaz and her husband Muhammad Safdar, who were co-accused in the same case and convicted and jailed along with him, until the outcome of an appeal against the conviction is decided by the high court. This has emerged as the biggest political development in the country since the July 25 election that deposed his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, and swept its rival, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, to power with PTI leader Imran Khan crowned prime minister.
The central question occupying the Pakistani intelligentsia, political circles and media these days is what will Sharif do next? Arguably, whatever he does will have a major effect on the political landscape of Pakistan for the next few years.
Why is Sharif and what he does next so important? In its 72 years, Pakistan has had 22 prime ministers. Of these, only 14 were elected through parliamentary elections. During his three separate stints as premier between 1990 and 2017, Sharif has governed Pakistan for the longest period: 3,433 days, or 9.4 years in total. The second-longest was Yousaf Gilani, who served a single term as PM for 1,545 days, or 4.2 years. The third-longest was Benazir Bhutto, who was in office for 1,506 days, or 4.1 years, across two terms.
Under Pakistani law, prime ministers are elected for a term of five years, so Sharif should have served for a total of 15 years (and Bhutto for 10 and Gilani for five) but was either sacked by the military or deposed by the judiciary each time (as were Bhutto and Gilani). In fact, no Pakistani prime minister has ever been voted out through elections or by parliament, all were booted out through controversial means.
The latest development in Sharif's case ensures a massive interest in his travails. It also begs a question that has long haunted Pakistan: can controversially sacked prime ministers have a future other than being hanged (as in the case of Zulfikar Ali), exiled (Bhutto, Sharif), murdered (Bhutto) or jailed (Gilani, Bhutto and Sharif) after being deposed? The track record does not make for pleasant reading.
And because there is a new government in place, how Khan officially handles Sharif’s fight for justice and rehabilitation will also reflect on the new prime minister’s own political future and his ability to govern the country.
Khan does not have a simple majority in both houses of Pakistan’s bicameral parliament, as the National Assembly is dominated by PTI but not the opposition-controlled Senate. His ambitious agenda for reforms requires extensive legislation and he cannot do this without the help of either Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan Peoples Party or Sharif’s PML-N. And he certainly can’t amend the constitution, which will require him to enlist the help of both the PPP and PML-N. If Khan, who has practiced a scorched-earth policy of maximum opposition against both parties to win elections, does not change and engage with Sharif’s party in Punjab province, his government will not be able to implement its reforms agenda easily in Sharif’s home base either.
The latest development in Sharif's case begs a question that has long haunted Pakistan: can controversially sacked prime ministers have a future other than being hanged, exiled, murdered or jailed after being deposed?
Sharif’s politics changed radically after he was deposed in 2017 by the Supreme Court, prodded by Khan, when the first of his two convictions took place. He was controversially deposed as prime minister and a member of National Assembly and disqualified from politics for life for not declaring in his tax returns a salary from his son’s company that was due to him, but which he did not collect. His appeal against this conviction was rejected by the apex court and he was additionally deposed from the leadership of his party. This disqualification is permanent, so Sharif does not have a future in parliamentary politics.
The second case was decided this year, just days ahead of the July 25 elections, while he was in London tending to his wife on her deathbed. He was convicted by an accountability court, along with Maryam, on the first of three corruption charges. He was jailed for 10 years and his daughter received a seven-year sentence. In deference to the court’s decision, he and Maryam returned to Pakistan from London and were promptly jailed. They were not heard from again for 10 weeks until the death of Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom, a respected politician in her own right. He and Maryam were freed on interim bail for five days to attend her funeral, after which father and daughter returned to jail. Two days later, the high court freed them after accepting their appeal for interim bail.
Sharif now has two fights ahead of him. The legal fight entails an attempt to overturn the accountability court’s verdict in the corruption case. He also faces two further corruption cases, which could add more years in jail to his existing term. It will be a long fight in the courts, but he has done it before in the past decade.
The other fight is political. He cannot claw his way back to parliamentary politics and will never be prime minister again or hold any other political office. But PML-N emerged as the second-largest party in the elections and he needs to keep his party united to complete his last unfinished agenda: his fight now is to help his plucky daughter Maryam, a popular politician in her own right, disentangle herself from the court cases against him and restore her to parliamentary politics. She already plans to contest a National Assembly by-election.
Sharif will be focused on facilitating her formal ascendancy within the party ranks to eventually become its leader and a candidate for prime minister in the 2023 election. That will be his political revenge.
• Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1