The ousted leader has not yet given up fighting. For the House of Sharif, it is not just about winning or losing a legal battle over the Panama Papers scandal; it goes far beyond that, with many other characters in the power play. But Sharif has little hope of emerging unscathed, and his options are running out.
Sharif resigned as prime minister in July after being disqualified from public office by the Supreme Court, yet all is not lost for him. He may be down but is not completely out; his party still holds power in the center as well as in the country’s most powerful province of Punjab. Despite his removal from office, Sharif remains the president of the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party and continues to operate as de facto prime minister, with the new government seeking his guidance on critical issues.
But the game may change completely with his possible conviction on corruption charges. The deadline of six months for the court to complete the trial ends early next year. Moreover, the strife within the party and the battle for succession within the family is proving more ominous for the embattled former prime minister.
That has further limited the options for Sharif. His show of aggression against the judges and the security establishment, who he believes conspired to bring about his removal, may have worked initially in mobilizing public sympathy — especially in his political stronghold in central Punjab, where his wife won his vacated parliamentary seat in a by-election. But the policy of confrontation seems to have lost momentum, widening the divide within his party ranks.
Many senior party leaders have warned Sharif against taking on the two most powerful institutions of the state, which they fear could result in the derailment of the entire democratic system. The message has been loud and clear: Winning the next election is more important than taking the risk of the entire system being wound up.
There is a general agreement among senior members that the party must focus on the elections next year. There is a strong belief that the party stands a fighting chance of returning to power on the basis of its performance, especially in Punjab. That may have forced Sharif to moderate his anti-establishment rhetoric, but his criticism of the court remains unrelenting.
In the ‘game of thrones’ that is Pakistani politics, options are running out for the former prime minister after his indictment on corruption charges.
It is certainly a different situation for Sharif than when he was ousted from power twice in the past. Both times he was removed with the military intervening directly. This time, the action has been more subtle yet extremely devastating. The removal came through a legal process, with the military staying in the shadows and making it difficult for the former leader to play martyr.
If the evidence against the Sharif family is strong enough to convict them, there is no need for the generals to come out of the shadows. The court issued arrest warrants last week against Sharif’s two sons and the once all-powerful finance minister, Ishaq Dar, who also happens to be the former prime minister’s close relative, for absconding. All of them are accused in the money-laundering case.
It is apparent that the PML-N intends to go into the general election, whatever the outcome of Sharif’s trial. Indeed, there is no other option for the beleaguered party, which is fighting back to keep its political hold, especially in battleground Punjab.
There is still a long way to go before the election. Given the uncertainty of Pakistan’s politics, it is hard to predict what will happen next. Sharif is fighting with his back to the wall, and the battle may decide his and the House of Sharif’s political future. It is also a battle for the political legacy of a man who has been at the center of Pakistan’s politics for more than three decades, whether in or out of power. This game of thrones is far from over.
• Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Centre for Scholar, USA, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. He is author of Frontline Pakistan: The struggle with militant Islam (Columbia university press) and The Scorpion’s tail: The relentless rise of Islamic militants in Pakistan (Simon and Schuster, NY). Frontline Pakistan was the book of the year (2007) by the WSJ.