Nawaz Sharif’s latest conviction marks the end of an era in Pakistani politics
For scions of Pakistan's Sharif dynasty, 2018 will be the year that was.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif suffered further disgrace on Monday when an anti-corruption court sentenced him to seven years of imprisonment over yet another graft charge. A single judge special court, however, acquitted him in another case.
The latest judgment may have sealed the political career of the three-time prime minister, even as it deals a serious blow to the country’s most powerful dynasty — one that dominated the country’s political scene for more than three decades. However, one is not sure if it marks the end of the family’s political legacy.
Nawaz was ousted from power last year by the country’s top court for perjury. The devastating ruling by the five-member Supreme Court bench not only disqualified the former prime minister for life but also indicted all his family members. The unprecedented judicial action against a sitting prime minister was a watershed moment. Notwithstanding the skepticism over the judgment which was perceived as radical, the action came from within the system and not from outside the constitutional framework.
His ordeal continued when he faced a range of corruption charges. Monday's judgment marks the second case in which Nawaz has been convicted. Earlier this year, an anti-corruption court convicted him and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz, and sentenced them to 11 and seven years in prison, respectively. They were later released on bail by the Islamabad High Court. Meanwhile, his two sons who live abroad have been declared absconders and Nawaz is back in prison after the latest verdict.
He will certainly lodge an appeal against the verdict with a higher court. However, there is little likelihood of him and his family members getting out of the legal battle for a long time, making it extremely difficult for Nawaz to return to active politics. The family suffered yet another blow after Shahbaz Sharif, Nawaz's younger brother and the former chief minister of the Punjab province, was arrested on corruption charges too. Shahbaz, who led the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) in the elections in the absence of his older brother, is the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly.
Indeed, the indictment of other family members has disrupted the dynasty’s succession plans. It is not clear who the leadership baton will be passed to if Shahbaz is convicted as well.
Maryam, who was once considered Nawaz's heir apparent, is now politically inactive after her conviction which also barred her from contesting the parliamentary elections in July this year.
Chances of Nawaz Sharif's return to power are very few and far between, but one is not yet sure if the Sharif family's rule is over.
With that in mind, the last hope of the Sharif family was Shahbaz's son — Hamza Sharif.
However, Hamza — who is the leader of the opposition in the Punjab Assembly — is also under investigation by an anti-corruption body. Invariably, all these problems compound the leadership predicament of the PML-N.
Nawaz’s latest conviction marks the end of an era in Pakistani politics. A child of the establishment, Nawaz was politically baptized by Gen. Zia ul Haq's military government in the early 1980s. His trajectory from Punjab chief minister to prime minister in the 1990s would not have been possible without the backing of the military and Punjab's powerful civil establishment.
His hold on political power also saw a massive rise in the family’s business fortunes. However, the ongoing financial scandal continued to dog him throughout his political career, particularly after his ascent to the country’s top position. It finally caught up with him after his and his family's name featured in the Panama Papers scandal and that ultimately led to his downfall.
With his rise to the pinnacle of political power, he tried to break away from the influence of the military establishment that had also unseated him during his previous terms. The former protege turned into the nemesis of the military establishment. It is not surprising that he remained locked in perpetual conflict with the military leadership throughout his third term in office.
Although the PML-N has historically remained close to the military establishment, Nawaz tried to transform it into a mass populist party, even though he may not have been fully successful in his endeavor. Still, over the years, Nawaz developed a popular mass base that propelled him to the top office for a record third term.
It is certainly a different situation for Nawaz than what he faced when he was ousted from power twice in the past. At both those times he was removed after the military's direct intervention. This time, however, the actions have been far more subtle and yet extremely devastating. The ouster came through a legal process with the military staying in the shadows. Chances of his returning to power are very few and far between, but one is not yet sure if the family's rule is over.
• Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at 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