Deep State intrigue hits Pakistan’s beleaguered Democracy

Deep State intrigue once again hits Pakistan’s beleaguered democracy and PM Sharif was ousted by a panel of 5 Supreme Court judges after a questionable verdict related to the infamous Panama gate.

DISQUALIFIED yesterday by Pakistan’s Supreme Court on grounds of dishonesty, it would seem there is no way back for Nawaz Sharif, the longest-serving prime minister in the country’s 70-year-history. Only devoted loyalists now share the belief of his daughter, Maryam, that Mr Sharif will soon “return with greater force”, something he managed after two previous ousters, in 1993 and 1999.

Mr Sharif’s disqualification will certainly last beyond the next scheduled elections, due mid-next year, and could yet be interpreted as being permanent. All five Supreme Court justices agreed that his failure to declare the $3,000 monthly salary he earned—but left untouched in a foreign bank account—from an offshore company, Capital FZE, broke the law. Though a technicality, it was enough for the judges to send him packing. The court also passed on meatier allegations of money-laundering to the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), an anti-corruption regulator. Between them, Mr Sharif and his inner circle—including Maryam, whom he had groomed as a successor—now face a dozen criminal charges. (They strongly deny any wrongdoing.)

Ever since the leak of 11.5m documents from a Panama law firm last year reignited the accusation that he used ill-gotten gains to buy four flats in London’s swanky Park Lane, Mr Sharif has spoken of a “conspiracy” to unseat him. (The argument was not helped by his wildly varying tales about the provenance of the flats.) The army did indeed orchestrate Mr Sharif’s two previous ousters, including once in a coup. It has has long disliked his desire for greater civilian control of relations with India, the army’s old enemy. But although “the establishment”, as the military is nervously referred to, probably provided key information in the case against him, many analysts agree its influence has been exaggerated this time around. That Mr Sharif has ended up in a ditch owes just as much his dodgy financial dealings and to a boisterous public movement to hold him accountable for them, led by Imran Khan, a cricketer-turned-politician who leads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), an opposition party.

The Supreme Court had cause to disqualify Mr Sharif on legal grounds, says Reza Ali, a lawyer. And Mr Sharif’s ouster also means he cannot bully the NAB, a mousey institution, in future trials. Nevertheless the bench has set a frighteningly wide precedent. It based Mr Sharif’s disqualification on Article 62 of the constitution, a baggy, mostly ignored law that requires politicians to be “honest” and “righteous”. Such qualities are hard to codify. Many, including Mr Khan, who himself currently faces a Supreme Court disqualification case, could be caught in the net. Yet a full-scale purge is improbable. Politicians who are tolerated by the army are unlikely to break a sweat. (Mr Khan, formerly a darling of the so-called Rawalpindi Boys, is less close to them today.

For now Mr Sharif is likely to run affairs from behind the scenes. Today the PML-N is set to install a lackey of his, the petroleum minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, as prime minister. The PML-N has also moved fast to appoint a long-term successor: reports suggest that Mr Sharif’s brother, Shabhaz (pictured, left), the policy-oriented governor of Punjab, has been selected to take up the reins as soon as possible.

Despite the backroom deals occurring so swiftly, there remains a risk of PML-N collapse. Imran Khan has won a victory a “bit like the World Cup” he secured as a cricketer in 1992, says Hassan Akbar of the Jinnah Institute, a think tank. His path to power now lies in his ability to pick off defectors from the ruling party, especially those in Punjab province, the Sharifs’ home turf. They can count on support from the population, who admire the roads and railways Shahbaz has laid out for them. But he is not as popular as his brother, and Pakistani politicians rarely stick on a sinking ship: Mr Akbar reckons that dozens could cross the floor if the PML-N  mismanages this transition period.

All this combines to leave Pakistan in a state of perilous uncertainty. The business of government is likely to take a backseat in a period when a gathering debt crisis and the promise of $62bn in infrastructure investment from China, require steady hands on the wheel. Moreover, Pakistan’s weak democracy has taken another blow. No prime minister has ever completed a full term in office. Instead of casting a vote on Mr Sharif in a year’s time, Pakistanis have been forced to watch, once again, as the state makes the decision for them. It may be a fresh start. But Pakistan has had too many of those already.

Modified after The Economist

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