Pakistan goes to the polls on July 25 and everything, on the face of it, looks hunky dory. Democracy appears to be doing fine, elected governments are completing their full term, polls are being held as per schedule, the Army is staying put inside the barracks and the judiciary remains vigilant.
Yet, there is something amiss in this picture-perfect appearance of democracy. The biggest blot on the country’s political canvas is the concerted effort to destroy the leadership of the country largest political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
On July 6, the Pakistani courts pronounced PML(N) chief and former PM Nawaz Sharif a thief who has apparently been robbing the country blind for years and has accumulated huge unaccounted assets abroad. He has been awarded a 10-year prison sentence and his daughter Maryam a seven-year term. His son-in-law Capt. Safdar has also been sentenced and is due to serve a year behind bars. The former Prime Minister’s two sons, Hassan and Hussain, are also
implicated but have been absconding for good reason.
As a further measure of intimidation, Pakistani goons were set upon the Sharif family who are in London to attend to the former Prime Minister’s wife Kulsoom Nawaz, who is in intensive care. Vandals, suspected to be in the pay of the Pakistani establishment, attacked their London residence and would have broken in had it not been for the timely arrival of the police.
Nawaz Sharif and his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who head the country’s largest and most popular political party, the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), have been in the boondocks since July last year when the Supreme Court had disqualified Nawaz Sharif from holding public office for not disclosing his employment in a Dubai-based company while filing his nomination papers in the 2013 elections.
At the same time, the court also ordered the country’s anti-corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau, to probe the charges against him and his family as alleged in the Panama Papers. Significantly, the probe team included two serving Army officers and although the Panama Papers had not explicitly named Nawaz Sharif, he was nailed as the principal accused and his children as accomplices.
While it is common knowledge that Nawaz Sharif has been amassing vast amounts of private wealth every time he has held office (thrice since 1990), the military establishment has either looked the other way or has been complicit.
It will be recalled that the Ittefaq Foundries owned by the Sharif family and nationalised by the late Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was returned to them by the Army in the 1980s. Thereafter, in his first term (1990-93), the Army actually facilitated bank loans to the Sharif family business and helped them grow into a diversified multi-million-dollar conglomerate. But those were at a time when Nawaz Sharif was still the Army’s protégé. Now the military establishment is desperate to put him away for good.
Nawaz Sharif and his daughter are expected to be arrested the moment they set foot in Pakistan. The timing of the judicial order is the key as the elections are just two weeks away. It is believed that the objective is to skewer the PNL(N)’s chances of forming the government again.
Last time, the PML(N) had emerged as the single largest party with 166 seats out of a total of 342 in the National Assembly. Nawaz Sharif was able to form a government after bribing several independents.
This time too, the opinion polls showed the PML(N) leading with former cricketer Imran Khan’s party, the Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI), following closely. Unimpeded, the PML(N) could quite possibly have returned to power but cannot now that the Army is set to put someone else in the top seat.
The problem, as most Pakistan watchers have long known, is the Pakistan Army’s determination to ensure that the country’s democratic rulers remain under its thumb. Any attempt to overrule the Army, which takes away more than 60 per cent of the country’s annual budget and has a complete say over the country’s security and foreign policy and related matters, has not been tolerated.
When Nawaz Sharif tried to remove former Army chief Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 1999, the tables were turned on him. The Army effected a bloodless coup and Gen. Musharraf, who had been appointed chief by Nawaz Sharif, would most certainly have hanged his mentor had it not been for the intervention from the Saudi royal family, which brokered a deal whereby Sharif was exiled to the desert kingdom.
The Army has been integral to domestic Pakistani politics ever since the assassination of the country’s first Prime Minister Liaqat Ali Khan in 1951. Army generals and dictators have selected, installed and deposed civilian leaders with impunity since then.
When Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, founder of Pakistan People’s Party, originally mentored by the military dictator Gen. Ayub Khan, in the 1960s, got too big for his boots and threatened to become a national force on his own, the then Army chief, Gen. Zia-ul Haq, disgraced, imprisoned and ultimately hanged him.
Bhutto’s daughter, Benazir, who grew into a hugely popular leader, was ultimately assassinated. Many fingers point at former dictator Gen. Musharraf.
Nawaz Sharif once said in a newspaper interview that the Army’s dirty tricks department, the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) directorate, has always meddled in politics. Sharif felt that unless the ISI’s role in domestic politics was ended, no government could progress and Pakistan’s political system would remain unstable.
Now it is the turn of Nawaz Sharif to be shown the door. If he refuses to exit with grace the chances are he too will meet a tragic end.
From all appearances, it seems now the Pakistan Army is not too keen on having a strong leader in the Prime Minister’s seat. Political experts in Pakistan seem to believe that this time the Army is supporting Imran Khan’s party and that of the professor-turned terrorist Hafeez Saeed, whose supporters need to be given space in Pakistan’s polity.
Pakistan thus hurtles towards another round of “free and fair elections”, albeit with a touch of military management — that this militates with the basic notion of democracy is another matter altogether.