Pakistani leaders are adept at leading abnormal political lives

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Pakistani leaders are adept at leading abnormal political lives

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Former prime minister Nawaz Sharif was jailed last week, while former president Asif Ali Zardari is preparing to go to jail in the next few days.

As dramatic as this may seem to the outside world, few in the country are surprised and several even expected it.

Why is this so?

Pakistan's leaders don't believe in normal, boring politics where politicians can run for office, get elected, are voted out in elections and retire after either people lose interest in them, or they get tired of the political arena.

Even when the country is not ruled by the military and is being governed by an elected government, politicians continue to lead abnormal lives. They are often nasty, brutish, and their time in office is usually short-lived.

There’s a history of this unusual political ‘normality’. Politics is a bruising career in Pakistan. When they are not being hanged (Zulfikar Bhutto), murdered (Benazir Bhutto), exiled (Benazir and Nawaz) or jailed (Zulfikar, Benazir, Nawaz, Yousaf Raza Gilani, Zardari and Shehbaz Sharif), elected prime ministers, presidents, and chief ministers here are mostly busy trying to merely survive in office. Remarkably, no one has succeeded even once in the country’s 70 years of existence.

Prior to Imran Khan bring elected as the country’s 13th prime minister by parliament in summer this year, none of his predecessors had completed the constitutional term of five years for the office.

Incredibly enough, not a single Pakistani premier has been voted out in election – or even lost a vote of confidence in parliament – simply because they either resigned under duress, served fill-in short periods and were removed through the court, or were removed by a third party.

Of the previous prime ministers – other than Zafarullah Jamali (2002-04), Shaukat Aziz (2004-07), Pervaiz Ashraf (2012-13) and Shahid Abbasi (2017-18) who served as stand-in prime ministers, at least four were formal candidates who had won elections and were expected to complete their tenures.

These included Zulfikar once in 1977, Muhammad Junejo once in 1988, Benazir twice in 1988 and 1993, Nawaz thrice in 1990, 1997 and 2013, and Gilani once in 2008.

Zulfikar was overthrown by the military within weeks of winning the elections in 1977, while Nawaz was also overthrown by the military in 1999, only two years into his five-year term. Junejo was sacked by the military, too.

Incredibly enough, not a single Pakistani premier has been voted out in election – or even lost a vote of confidence in parliament – simply because they either resigned under duress, served fill-in short periods and were removed through the court, or were removed by a third party.

Adnan Rehmat

Benazir was twice sacked by the president with the backing of the military, while Nawaz was removed twice by the president in a similar manner.

However, while the military either directly removed elected leaders and imposed martial law or in some cases -- with elected presidents -- drove out prime ministers no less than seven times, it has been the judiciary which legally has had the last word on each of these removals, acting as the supposed neutral filter between contending parties.

The martial laws were constitutionally illegal but were validated nonetheless in typical Pakistani fashion by the judiciary while the presidentially-driven ousters of prime ministers, while not being unconstitutional, were still controversially upheld as lawful as a result of a mostly judicial activism.

In all cases, the parliament, which elects the prime minister, was excluded as a party in all such cases against the premiers.  

After the presidential powers to sack prime ministers was removed by the parliament in 2008 -- to improve the chances of elected leaders to serve their full five-year terms -- the court was once again active.

In 2012, days before becoming the would-be longest serving premier in Pakistani history, Gilani was removed from office after being awarded a 30-second token punishment for refusing a court order against the president who enjoyed constitutional immunity.

Nawaz was similarly disqualified for life from politics in 2017 for allegedly not declaring a small payment he was supposed to have received from his son.

Today, not only are past prime ministers and presidents (Zardari, facing indictment and arrest) but would-have-been premier (Shehbaz Sharif, already in jail) and Bilawal Bhutto (facing indictment)  – even PM Khan is facing accountability inquiries and is getting ready to join the ranks of previously-rankled leaders of Pakistan who have led abnormal political lives.

While being out of office increases one’s political vulnerability to vendetta, how can a serving Pakistani prime minister improve his odds of longevity in office?

One solution may lie in amending the constitution to grant immunity from prosecution in office, such as the one that is currently applicable to the president.

However, when PM Khan and President Arif Alvi are leading the charge to jail the former prime minister (Nawaz), former president (Zardari) and wannabe future prime minister (Bilawal), who will empower parliament?

• Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher andanalyst with interests in politics, media, development andscience. Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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