The moment of reckoning for Nawaz Sharif

The moment of reckoning for Nawaz Sharif

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The Islamabad High Court had ordered Nawaz Sharif to present himself before it on Sept. 10, 2020 to become eligible to plead a case of exoneration against a botched conviction by an accountability judge who has been sacked for compromised adjudication. He failed to appear in person. A day earlier, the same accountability court had declared him a fugitive from justice.

This turn of events represents a dilemma for the veteran politician, putting him on a crossroads in his political career. To reverse his status as fugitive from justice he must end a nearly year-long self-exile to London. Under normal circumstances this would not be a problem, but his is not an ordinary conundrum. He is legally a convict serving a seven-year jail sentence but out on technical bail to allow for medical treatment after he nearly died of dangerously low levels of white cells in his bloodstream late last year. 

Sharif was given a conditional eight-week reprieve to treat himself, but this has stretched to 11 months after the COVID-19 pandemic intervened and made his early return from London all but impossible. This excuse no longer holds. He now faces a Hobson’s choice. To win exoneration from conviction he must be physically present with no guarantee of freedom.

Sharif is at a crossroads in more ways than one. The future of his personal politics and that of his opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) depends on what he decides next. The decision is made critical by the fact that it will reshape the future of Pakistani politics itself as he is the senior-most opposition politician with the most power to influence the national political landscape.

Adnan Rehmat

And yet if he returns, he will be re-jailed and being on an official list of people barred from leaving the country will not be able to return to his otherwise comfortable self-exile considering the keenness of his political nemesis Prime Minister Imran Khan to keep him imprisoned.

Sharif is at a crossroads in more ways than one. The future of his personal politics and that of his opposition party Pakistan Muslim League-N (PML-N) depends on what he decides next. The decision is made critical by the fact that it will reshape the future of Pakistani politics itself as he is the senior-most opposition politician with the most power to influence the national political landscape.

Consider the pending decisions at his end and his choices. First, should he return or not — if he does, he will be arrested on arrival and sent to jail, not home. This will reimpose risks to his health, now more serious in potency due to the added complication of coronavirus. Also, not returning would disqualify his bid to secure a possible exoneration in the case that resulted in his conviction and long jail term. Serving the full seven-year jail term will effectively end his political career because another two national elections — scheduled in 2023 and 2028 will be held without him. He might as well bid adieu to politics in that case.

Second, if his absence from the country stretches on, what will be the fate of his party? The PML-N is already split in two camps — his, which wants confrontational politics, and his brother Shahbaz's, which prefers conformism and collaboration with the security establishment to keep the party in contention for future election showings. At the heart of this struggle is a generational leadership transition — should Nawaz’ popular and charismatic daughter Maryam ascend to top leadership or should it be Hamza, the dour but pragmatic scion of Shahbaz? While the brothers themselves do not spar publicly, internally the party is conflicted by the tough choice that faces them.

The PML-N was built by Nawaz whose support base revolves around populous urban Punjab which is sick of the current political dispensation and wants him to restore the party to power and influence. The only way he can do that is by coming back to Pakistan to an uncertain personal future involving a heavy personal cost but resulting in a reinvigorated party to cement the chances of Maryam who is widely seen as prime ministerial material.

He understands that if he does not come back sooner rather than later, his party is likely to slip away from his grasp and probably proscribe his otherwise glittering political career with a whimper. His hesitation is linked to seeking certainties about Maryam’s ability to conduct politics without herself being arrested and locked up, thus losing his entire political capital.

But Sharif cannot have it both ways. This is mainly because the crossroads he stands on is also the crossroads for Pakistani politics. In the matrix he finds himself in, should he take the blue pill, the comfortable route to luxurious prevarication, or should he choose the red pill – the road to confrontation? Either way, his decision to resume active politics is not just going to impact his family’s choices but the very political fortunes of Pakistan. He has finally arrived at that moment in his life that will define his legacy. What will he choose, for himself, and for Pakistan? We will soon discover!

- Adnan Rehmat is a Pakistan-based journalist, researcher and analyst with interests in politics, media, development and science.

Twitter: @adnanrehmat1

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