Game Over For Nawaz Sharif?
Even if he survives the demands for his resignation, Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan is already controversial, damaged and bruised. This is the time for him to think about his future, his legacy and the family interests. Twenty-nine years is a long time in politics. And for Mr. Nawaz Sharif, it might be time to retire from active politics and make way for new leadership with fresh ideas. A handsome young man, Mr. Sharif tried to pursue a career as an actor. But his industrialist father’s connections led him to enter politics. Pakistan’s military ruler, President Gen. Zia ul Haq, handpicked Sharif and helped him run in the 1985 general elections. Zia was a bold and decisive man. The 1985 elections were a masterstroke at the time. In one bold move, Zia produced new faces and new leadership, a job that Pakistani political parties failed to perform. But three decades later, the 1985 elections are seen as the main cause for the current rot in Pakistani politics. Zia left (today is the 26th anniversary of his assassination) and the Pakistani parties failed to carry the mantle and renew the blood. Most of the aging faces in Pakistan’s politics today were produced in the 1985 elections. The parties are unable to offer any second- and third-tier leadership except the sons and daughters of the members of the 1985 parliament.
Why is it over for the Sharifs? Nawaz Sharif went on to serve three times as the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and three times as Chief Minister of Punjab, a key province because of the number of seats in the federal parliament. This is a unique record. Ever since being sworn in as CM Punjab in April 1985, the wealth of the Sharif family multiplied astronomically. Today the family has business holdings worldwide. The Sharifs today represent everything that is wrong with Pakistani politics: the nepotism, the mafia-style power games, failure to groom new leadership, and the inability to create a successful democratic model. In his second and third terms as Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif transformed himself into an element of tension and instability in the Pakistani political system. In his second term, his government clashed with both the judiciary and the military. As a third-time premier, he managed in one year to clash with the military on several occasions. The biggest short-sightedness of the prime minister is his failure to reciprocate military’s genuine desire to create a working democracy. He remained driven by revenge for the 1999 military coup (itself a result of his inability to responsibly manage his relationship with the military). His latest blunder was to firmly resist independent probe in May 2013 election fraud. He failed to unite the country after elections, exacerbated differences with other politicians and with the military, and meddled in the judiciary through under-the-table contacts. On June 17, his federal government and Shehbaz Sharif’s provincial Punjab government ordered the police to open fire on unarmed anti-Nawaz peaceful protesters of Pakistan Awami Tehreek (PAT). Eleven innocent Pakistani women and men were killed. They were not hardened political veterans but middle class idealists demanding political reform. These actions have severely destabilized Pakistan’s political system. Thousands of young Pakistanis have descended on Islamabad to demand the Prime Minister resign. There is no threat of a military coup. But some elements in the media close to Prime Minister’s PMLN-led government are trying to ease the pressure on Mr. Sharif by portraying the crisis as being Military vs. Democracy and not Sharif vs. Opposition. Now, the Sharif brothers and some of their top aides face murder charges for the 11 PAT deaths. This heady mix of political trouble can prove terminal in Pakistani politics.
What are PM Sharif’s options?
- Nawaz and Shehbaz Sharif can step down, along with a handful of controversial aides, allow fresh elections, and let PMLN elect new leadership. (Impossible)
- Other political parties, like PPP, MQM, JI, can step in and force the Sharifs to step down. (Possible but unlikely)
- The PTI/PAT anti-PM movement fails and withdraws from Islamabad. (Impossible)
- A confrontation occurs in Islamabad, turns ugly; military steps in, puts in place a long term government to redesign the political system. Or goes for fresh elections after a quick constitutional reform process.
Of the four options, 2 and 4 are the likeliest. In both cases, Pakistani democracy would benefit from the removal of elements of instability. The opportunity would allow for introspection and for enacting reforms that result in transparent elections. Practitioners of politics would also draw lessons in making Pakistani politics more positive and constructive. Being a force for stability in West, South and Central Asia, the international community would be interested in working with any government in Islamabad, provided it demonstrates ability to stabilize the political system and offer a roadmap for progress. The United States and the United Kingdom held extensive, informal meetings with Nawaz Sharif before he became Prime Minister. The purpose was to create partnership. Former President Zardari reportedly helped bring Sharif closer to the two countries that helped broker the NRO arrangement that brought Zardari to power. It is not clear if Washington and London would oppose seeing Sharif leave. But if they do, they will not directly interfere in Pakistani politics.
So, what should the Pakistani military do? Its 2008 decision to disengage from politics is the right decision. The military remains a key player in the Pakistani power structure and has a legitimate role, along with the executive and judiciary. The military input in government policies is a force for stability and strength for the democratic system. Having said this, it would be a blunder for the military not to make contingency plans in case the PMLN-led government fails to end the crisis. The responsibility to end the political crisis and unite the country lies squarely with Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. He is responsible. There is consensus within the military leadership that Pakistan’s democratic experiment should be allowed to mature at its own pace. This is why the military rejected several golden opportunities to intervene since 2008. But there is another problem: What to do if the Pakistani political system continues to produce crises? Recurring instability will hurt the country and repeatedly demand military attention. It is clear that, for the first time, Pakistan’s educated urban classes and the younger generation want a democratic system that works. Pakistan’s military might have one crucial role to play: to clearly stand on the side of the nation’s best and brightest, to help nudge politicians and judiciary toward major and urgent political reform. The military won’t rule but it can help create a system that allows Pakistan’s best and brightest to come to the top. This reform includes ideas such as introducing a presidential form of government, introducing administrative provinces, forcing political parties to internally democratize, and reform government bureaucracy and economic policy. Pakistan’s educated middle class is strongly drawn to the PAT- and PTI-led anti-Nawaz movement. There is growing disgruntlement against a political system incapable to govern. The political parties have not changed faces since 1985 and are incapable to govern or offer new ideas. The system should be reformed before popular anger gets out of control. But everything comes down to how Prime Minister Sharif ends this crisis. For him, the writing is on the wall.
The author is a fellow at Project for Pakistan in 21st Century. Follow him @AQpk