In October, former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif returned to Pakistan after four years of self-imposed exile in London. The Islamabad High Court, which had earlier declared him an “absconder” in corruption cases and issued his arrest warrants, readily provided him protective bail before his arrival. Last week, an anti-corruption court ordered the return of his seized assets. His return and the instant judicial reprieve he received are clear signs that he has the blessings of the army, which retains the veto on who is in and out of politics.
To his party and its supporters, Sharif’s respite is simply the long-due correction of the mistreatment he had to endure since 2017 when he was removed from power in a military-backed “judicial coup” after which he was sentenced to 14 years in prison on politically motivated graft charges.
To his detractors, Sharif is just another compromised politician, who used his medical condition to get out of jail and seek refuge in London and has now struck a deal with the generals for his political resurrection ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for February next year.
Military’s Traditional Divide-and-Rule Strategy Has Come Full Circle
2017 was not the first time Sharif fell on the wrong side of the military. For instance, after he signed the “Lahore Declaration” with Indian Prime Minister A B Vajpayee in February 1999 in which both sides agreed to peacefully settle all outstanding bilateral disputes, the army under General Pervez Musharraf stabbed him in the back with the Kargil operation that culminated in the October 1999 coup and his exile to Saudi Arabia.
When he was re-elected in 2013, Sharif irked the military by hosting Prime Minister Narendra Modi at his residence in Lahore, urging the generals to forego their jihadi assets to avoid international isolation, and even attempting to prosecute those responsible for the Pathankot terrorist attack. Fed up with these and other transgressions, Army Chief of Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa used the fortuitous leak of the Panama Papers to have the Supreme Court disqualify him from office in 2017 (who did so on a technicality rather than any evidence of corruption).
To keep him out of power, the generals then rigged the July 2018 parliamentary elections and catapulted Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehrike-e-Insaaf (PTI) party into office. Throughout this ordeal, Sharif remained defiant, vocally advocating civilian supremacy and publicly naming and shaming General Bajwa and then Director-General of Inter-Services Intelligence of Pakistan Lt Gen Faiz Hameed for subverting the constitution. Ultimately, Khan’s falling out with Bajwa paved the way for the PML-N and its allies, including the PPP, to oust him through a vote of no confidence in April 2022.
With his party back in power, and the military under pressure from Khan’s populist assault on Bajwa, and his successor, General Asim Munir, Sharif’s return was only a matter of time. To seal the deal, the PML-N ingratiated itself to General Munir by supporting his systematic dismantling of its rival PTI in the wake of the party’s orchestrated 9 May attacks on military installations to protest Khan’s arrest on corruption charges. Khan has since languished in jail, and most PTI leaders have succumbed to military pressure (including abductions and illegal detention) to either part ways with him and quit politics or join a new “King’s party” led by Jehangir Tareen, a former close aide of Khan.
In sum, the military’s traditional divide-and-rule strategy has come full circle since 2018. The generals got rid of Sharif by using Khan and have now swapped Khan with Sharif to neutralize the former cricketer’s residual support, especially in the Punjab. Many Pakistani democrats believe Sharif’s dalliance with the military has exposed the hollowness of his avowed adherence to the principle of civilian supremacy. Yet it is hardly new for politicians in Pakistan to strike a compromise with the general which is the only guarantee of political survival.
The More Things Change, the More They Remain the Same
Sharif knows well that defying the military is a losing game. Not surprisingly, he has struck a conciliatory note since his return and promised not to exact revenge on those who ousted him, a thinly veiled reference to the generals and judges behind his last ouster. Instead, he has promised to make economic revival his top priority if elected.
But the country’s complicated economic problems, including a mounting debt burden, and unaccountable military expenditure, have no short-term fixes. Soaring inflation and fuel prices during the PML-N’s sixteen months in office have hardly enamored the party to the voters. And any serious structural reform program cannot succeed in a multi-ethnic Pakistan without a stable, federal parliamentary democratic system. That will require, in the first instance, a government put in office through a free and fair election.
Yet all the evidence suggests the contrary. The constitutionally mandated 90-day deadline for elections has already been breached in letter and spirit. The level playing field is far from level. While the PTI was never an organically popular party, it has now been reduced to a shell of its former self.
The PPP, which was a coalition partner in the last PML-N government, has raised serious concerns about the impartiality of the caretaker government entrusted with the task of holding the ballot. Rather than focusing on its primary duty, the caretaker cabinet is predictably acting as a façade for indirect military rule. Sharif’s party is already tainted by its collusion with the military.
Even if the former PM is able to galvanise his support base to win the election, the victory will lack legitimacy. Regardless of who forms a government, the generals will continue to call the shots on domestic politics and foreign affairs and intervene if that government crosses any red lines. Sharif or no Sharif, Pakistan is unlikely to break out of its permanent praetorian trap in the foreseeable future. Unfortunately for its 230 million people, the more things change in the country, the more they remain the same.
(Aqil Shah is an Adjunct Associate Professor in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)