"Short relief" for the former Prime Minister
The twin decision of Pakistan’s top court on the Sharif brothers has lent some relief to them, denoting changing winds in Pakistani politics. While the ailing Nawaz Sharif has been freed on bail for six weeks, the court has lifted a travel ban on his younger brother Shahbaz who is now heading the opposition Pakistan Muslim League(N).
Although the former prime minister is out on bail based on health grounds, he will not be able to engage in political activities. Nevertheless, the court order has lifted the morale of his party supporters. Convicted and banned from holding public office, the three-time prime minister is already out of the political race. He has been serving a jail sentence on a litany of corruption charges. Nawaz, who is now in his 70’s, is suffering from various heart related ailment and prison has worsened his condition.
More significantly, however, is the lifting of a travel ban on Shahbaz who is also the leader of the opposition in the National Assembly. The former chief minister of Punjab who is facing an investigation on several charges of corruption and misuse of power was released from detention earlier this year. He was held for questioning by National Accountability Bureau (NAB), the country’s premier anti-graft body. Shahbaz who took over the party leadership after Nawaz’s conviction is considered more pragmatic and moderate than his older brother. His release also gave the party a huge political boost.
Although it was swept out of power in the last elections, the PML(N) remains a major political force in the country. Despite the conviction of Nawaz and his daughter Maryam and their absence during the election campaign, the party has maintained its stronghold in Punjab, the country’s biggest and most powerful province. Notwithstanding some electoral setback, it is still the single largest party in the provincial assembly. Rather uncharacteristically the party has remained united despite the efforts by the security agencies to break it.
The latest court ruling on the Sharifs has given currency to the speculations about a possible deal between the PML(N) and the security establishment. There has been a tangible softening of the party’s tone toward the establishment, though its attack on prime minister Imran Khan and his government has intensified. Senior party members now accept that Nawaz’s policy of confrontation with the military and the judiciary has cost them power. Since taking over the leadership, Shahbaz has steered the party to a more moderate path.
The latest court ruling on the Sharifs has given currency to the speculations about a possible deal between the PML(N) and the security establishment.
Although the court order has provided Nawaz some relief, his ordeal is far from over. The legal battle continues; Maryam who was also convicted and sentenced to seven- year jail is out on bail. Once seen as the heir apparent to the Sharif political dynasty, she seems to be out of the political center stage. It is highly improbable for the father and daughter to make a political comeback. But the party will remain a formidable political force as the leadership is transferred to another branch of the dynasty.
Interestingly, the court relief to the Sharifs has come as the noose seems to be tightening around the other opposition party leader Asif Ali Zardari. The former president’s fate now hangs in the balance after a damning indictment in a money-laundering investigation. Although having suffered incarceration for almost nine years before making it to the highest echelons of power, things are far more serious for Zardari this time. While the legal process is yet to conclude, a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) report appears highly incriminating. The PPP leader and his sister Faryal Talpur are accused of running dubious financial and business networks through front men, worth billions of rupees.
Surely, the phenomenal wealth allegedly accumulated through questionable means seems hard for Zardari to defend. But there is also the question of whether these charges could be proven in a court of law. Meanwhile, the PPP has decided to take to the street in protest against what it describes as politically driven accountability. While the PPP politically controls the Sindh province, its support in Punjab and other provinces has been completely wiped out.
That makes it extremely hard for the PPP to mobilize public support. It is also apparent that people will not come out to defend Zardari who has never enjoyed a good reputation even among the PPP supporters. The latest development however, seems to have blocked any possibility of the PML(N) and the PPP coming together against the government. Bilawal Bhutto who is now leading an anti-government train march has implied that the court orders could be a result of a deal. What happens next is likely to redefine the country’s political template.
• Zahid Hussain is an award-winning journalist and author. He is a former scholar at Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington DC, and a visiting fellow at Wolfson College, University of Cambridge, and at the Stimson Center in Washington DC. Twitter: @hidhussain