Another Sharif in the crosshairs
Just as the situation seemed to be settling down a bit, Pakistan is caught in another whirlpool of political turmoil with the arrest of opposition leader Shahbaz Sharif on graft charges. The former chief minister of Punjab province and president of the Pakistan Muslim League — Nawaz (PML-N) has been taken into custody by the country’s anti-graft body for investigation into a multibillion-rupee housing project scam.
His detention came as the new government steps up its anti-corruption campaign, raising the political temperature in the country. The opposition has linked the arrest to next week’s by-elections, accusing the administration of political victimization. The high-profile detention with no formal charges has raised questions over the entire accountability process in Pakistan. There is a history of using corruption cases against political rivals.
There is certainly some weight to the opposition allegation that the current anti-corruption drive is being used to target the Sharif family. An anti-corruption court in July sentenced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to 10 years in prison for amassing wealth beyond his means. The same court also convicted his daughter Maryam. The three-time prime minister was earlier removed from power and barred from holding public office for life for perjury.
An Islamabad High Court bench last month suspended Nawaz’s jail sentence, saying the charges were unsustainable. However, the disgraced leader still faces trial on two other counts. The arrest of Shahbaz has reinforced the perception of a witch hunt. Some legal experts are skeptical that corruption charges against the former chief minister could stand in a court of law.
Shahbaz, as chief minister of Pakistan’s most powerful province for 10 years, had been eulogized as a good administrator. He was considered moderate compared to his extremely impetuous elder brother Nawaz. Shahbaz had distanced himself from Nawaz’s policy of confrontation with the powerful military establishment and the apex judiciary. Shahbaz led the PML-N into elections in Nawaz’s absence. It lost the elections, but emerged as the main opposition party in Parliament.
It had not been easy for Shahbaz to maintain unity in a party torn between the different narratives espoused by the two brothers. While Nawaz and Maryam have taken a hardline, confrontational position, Shahbaz has advocated a conciliatory path.
In fact, he had publicly challenged Nawaz’s stance on the military establishment being behind his ouster and undermining his party. After Nawaz’s disqualification, the party leadership went to the other branch of the family, but he and Maryam have continued to cast their shadow on the PML-N. Their position has been strengthened after the Islamabad High Court ruling.
Despite the actions against the Sharif family, the PML-N remains a formidable political force in Punjab. Shahbaz’s arrest is unlikely to have any serious effect on party morale. It is unclear whether Nawaz, who is now out on bail, would retake charge of the PML-N. Any confrontation could land him in further trouble.
There is certainly some weight to the opposition allegation that the current anti-corruption drive is being used to target the Sharif family.
It is evident that Shahbaz’s detention will intensify political confrontation in Pakistan. Although the government contends that the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the country’s top anti-corruption body, is autonomous, statements from some ministers have reinforced the allegation of vendetta politics.
The incident has united the PML-N and the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), presenting a serious challenge to Prime Minister Imran Khan’s government, which depends on several smaller parties for its survival. Any split in the coalition could put the government in serious trouble.
One of the factors bringing the PML-N and the PPP closer is the fear that the noose is also tightening around former Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari. The PPP leader and his sister are under investigation in a multibillion-rupee money-laundering scandal. Several of Zardari’s friends and business partners have already been arrested. It is simply a matter of time before he too comes under the axe.
With the growing opposition challenge, the situation has become extremely ominous. A major question is how Khan plans to deal with this situation and ensure his government’s survival. It has not been a very promising beginning for the coalition government, which is composed of disparate political groups.
It has yet to find direction with an inexperienced team at the helm. The situation is much more complex as Pakistan faces multiple challenges, both internal and external. It is true that the security apparatus is keen to prop up this government, but in the event of a worsening political crisis, things could get completely out of control.
• Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. Twitter: @hidhussain