Nawaz Sharif’s life ban from holding office hints at judicial coup in Pakistan; former PM running out of options

Nawaz Sharif is caught between a rock and a hard place. The relentless path towards a judicial coup seems to be well on its way, with the latest judgment of the Supreme Court declaring Sharif ineligible to hold a public office for life. The media is already speculating on rumours of Adiala Jail being readied for the embattled former prime minister.

The latest ruling, as well as the pace of Supreme Court judgments, makes it amply clear that the objective is to ensure that Sharif cannot find a place anywhere within the political firmament in the upcoming general elections. This particular judgment follows earlier such pronouncements, which successively declared him unfit to hold the top office under Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution, which calls for a Member of Parliament to be both ‘honest’ and ‘truthful’. Following that, he lost his post as party head since a party head also has to be an MP.

The newest judgment makes for interesting reading. Verses from the Koran were read out to flesh out the meaning of ‘ameen’. In interpretations of the Article itself, it was pointed out that no time period is set for disqualification. The constitutional article itself specifies that a member of Parliament should be “sagacious, righteous and non-profligate, honest and ameen, there being no declaration to the contrary by a court of law”.

The court therefore makes a fairly reasonable judgment that, “we are inclined to hold that the incapacity created for failing to meet the qualifications under Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution imposes a permanent bar which remains in effect so long as the declaratory judgment supporting the conclusion of one of the delinquent kinds of conduct under Article 62(1)(f) of the Constitution remains in effect”.

If Sharif’s party again storms through to victory in the next elections, it buys itself time to ‘revisit’ the original case, which in all fairness was finally decided on a very small technical hitch. The present Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar will retire on 16 January, 2019. However, there is not much leeway here. As of now, the person slated to succeed him is Justice Asif Saeed Khosa.

He can be remembered as the dissenting voice in the three-member bench which let Sharif off the first time the case came to court in April last year. He, however, also has known views on the ambiguity of these constitutional clauses which call for a subjective judgement of character.

Again, on a purely legal angle, Sharif, his daughter Maryam Nawaz, and his son-in-law Captain (retd) Safdar are being questioned again in the case regarding ownership of the Avenfield flats in London. If Sharif is held guilty in this case and is sentenced to more than two years punishment, he can’t stand for election for five years under Article 63(h). Sharif has been imprisoned before and bounced back. But conviction will add substance to the finding that he is not “ameen”. That pretty much finishes him. He may as well retire to his farm and grow corn.

Added to this tale of woe is the press release of the 210th Corps Commanders meeting on 11 April.The short statement remarked, “the Forum concluded to continue efforts in support of state institutions which are taking Pakistan on a positive trajectory of peace, stability and prosperity”.

According to the always ebullient Najam Sethi, this augurs poorly for Sharif’s future. He argues that this implies that institutions like the National Accountability Bureau – which is the one primarily invested in raking up Sharif’s past – and the judiciary among others, are taking the country on a positive direction due to their witch hunt against Sharif.

In an earlier interaction with the media, The Daily Times had reported a far more detailed summary of the chief’s views. One of his statements seems to have included an “indiscriminate support” for the law of the land. The general had the courage to include his own institution in terms of a general clean up, and there is certainly much in what he says.

Pakistan – and indeed, even its neighbours – badly need a scouring from top to bottom of an all-pervasive corruption that is eating away at state foundations. In Pakistan, however, the problem is that it is the army itself which has prevented the growth of democratic institutions. The way to create accountable governments is not to get after one particular candidate while encouraging another, not to mention giving space to a medley of a right-wing rabble.

Sharif is a leader used to this particular type of military-political games. After all, he cut his teeth in politics, with the support of the military. So far, he has been able to use this army’s witch hunt to present himself as a victim (yet again). The victimhood narrative generally succeeds in Pakistan, where every man sees himself as a victim of some state institution or the other. Sharif can cruise to a win, with any immediate imprisonment probably adding to his lustre. His optimal option would once have been to promote his daughter and control the party through her.

Maryam, however, seems to be as deep in a legal tangle as her father. The second option is to prop up his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who surprisingly, is in no way part of any of the money laundering schemes unearthed so far. There are two problems with that. One, that brother Shahbaz will then groom his own two sons for the party leadership and posts. One is already a Member of Parliament.

Second, the move of Shahbaz to the Centre will erode the Sharif families’ stranglehold on Punjab. Other parties like the PTI of Imran Khan and the right-wing Tehreek-e-Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah (TLYRA) are already nipping at their heels. Several Members of the National Assembly from south Punjab and Sheikhupura are already reported to have deserted the party.

Sharif’s biggest advantage is Bilawal Bhutto, as in a case quite similar to certain neighbouring political families. His biggest threat is Imran Khan, millionaire playboy, absentee parliamentarian and an ‘also ran’ on charges of money laundering, not to mention sexual harassment. Constitutional articles are going to need to be stretched to the utmost for an interpretation of “ameen” if Imran scrambles to the top. Good luck with that.