ISLAMABAD: Sitting in a small, crowded courtroom, Pakistan’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif made a show of defiance as he vowed to resist the “undemocratic forces” that he claimed were attempting to drive him to the wall.
“All corruption cases against me are fabricated and fake,” he told Arab News during a break in the accountability court proceedings.
“People are ultimate decision-makers in a democracy, and I hope they will vote us into power again,” the three-time elected former leader said.
Sharif’s daughter and heir-apparent, Maryam Nawaz, was seated beside him in the accountability court in Islamabad last week.
The 68-year-old Sharif has so far attended more than 50 hearings at the court along with his daughter and son-in-law, (retired) Capt. Mohammed Safdar, for allegedly having assets beyond their means.
The corruption allegations are the latest setback for the Sharifs, the political dynasty that has ruled Pakistan for almost three decades. The family’s downfall has made headlines and led to bitter infighting as rival members of the clan seek to wrest control of Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
The saga began after a cache of documents from Panamanian law firm Mossack Fonseca was leaked to the world’s media in May, 2016.
Shortly afterwards, Sharif, who was then prime minister, along with his daughter and sons, Hassan Nawaz and Hussain Nawaz, were accused of having secret offshore companies and assets in the UK.
Pakistan’s opposition parties, especially former international cricketer Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, demanded the Sharifs disclose their secret wealth and filed a petition in the Supreme Court for investigations into the revelations made in the so-called “Panama Papers.”
After nine months of hearings, the Supreme Court, in a landmark judgment on July 28 last year, disqualified Sharif from holding any public office and directed the National Accountability Bureau to begin inquiries into his family over allegations of corruption.
Sharif’s PML-N had emerged as the most popular party in the country’s 2013 elections, winning 14.86 million votes to claim victory in the world’s fifth-largest democracy.
But after Sharif was ousted from the leadership, the Supreme Court banned him from Parliament for life.
In recent months, Sharif and his family have tried to sidestep the crisis by handing over the party leadership to his younger brother, Shahbaz Sharif — but political analysts say they are fast losing grip over the party.
“Sitting legislators of the ruling party are quitting, and this shows how fast the house of Sharifs is crumbling ahead of 2018 general elections,” says Tahir Malik, political analyst and professor at a public-sector university.
Malik predicts Shahbaz Sharif will fail to keep the party intact since most of the Pakistan Muslim League’s heavyweight candidates are unable to see a political future for the Sharifs.
“In Pakistan, politicians move with the direction of the wind,” he told Arab News, “and the wind is currently blowing against the Sharif family.”
Apart from the political crisis, analysts highlight a Sharif family struggle to seize control of the party, with Nawaz pushing his daughter Maryam as party heir, while Shahbaz wants his son, Hamza Shahbaz, to gain prominence.
Maryam Nawaz stole the limelight in August last year when she conducted a by-election campaign on behalf of her mother, Kulsoom Nawaz, who is in London undergoing treatment for cancer. The election was called in a Lahore constituency after the seat fell vacant due to Nawaz Sharif’s disqualification.
According to political observers, Shahbaz Sharif and his son were angered by Maryam Nawaz’s growing popularity, with both refusing to visit the constituency.
Maryam Nawaz ran the campaign single-handedly, winning the Lahore constituency with a big margin for her ailing mother — and proving her political acumen in the process.
The victory boosted her confidence, and cast a shadow over plans by her uncle and cousin to take the reins of the party. However, it also sparked widespread rumors about rifts and resentments within the Sharif clan.
“The struggle within the Sharif family for leadership of the party is obvious and this is damaging their political prospects,” said Rasul Bukhsh Rais, a leading political analyst.
Described as “overambitious” by some analysts, Maryam Nawaz is also planning to pitch her son, Junaid Safdar, into politics at the forthcoming general elections in a bid to keep control of the party. According to some observers, that is further alienating the Shahbaz Sharif camp.
However, a close aide and confidante of Nawaz Sharif, Sen. Mushahid Ullah Khan, rejected what he described as “negativity about Sharifs and the PML-N,” saying that those painting a “doomsday scenario” will soon fail.
“The Sharif family and the PML-N are not only surviving the propaganda campaign but also thriving,” he told Arab News.
“All our detractors failed in the past and (are) going to fall flat this time, too.”