Two weeks before its general elections on July 25, Pakistan is bracing for another political storm. On July 13, an anti-corruption court sentenced former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to 10 years in prison in a case arising after the Panama Papers leaks revealed that Sharif’s family owned four undeclared apartments in London. The court also sentenced Maryam Nawaz Sharif, his daughter and political heir, to seven years in prison.
The conviction and impending arrest of Sharif and his daughter is expected to turn the electoral season fraught and potentially impact the results, if Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, also known as PMLN, goes to the polls without its star campaigners.
The court acquitted Sharif of the charges that he had acquired the apartments by corrupt, dishonest or illegal means but convicted him for his failure to explain how he came to own the properties, as he and his family have been living in them since the early 1990s. Sharif was in London with his wife, who is battling cancer, when he was convicted.
Sharif and his daughter have announced their decision to return to Pakistan on July 13. They would face immediate arrest and imprisonment. The former prime minister and his daughter have repeatedly claimed their innocence and attributed their travails to a falling out with the military over his attempts to assert civilian supremacy.
The electoral campaign has been fraught, with the media denouncing moves by the military to dictate coverage. The military is also seen to be working with the judiciary to undermine Sharif and his party, and promote the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf Party, known as the PTI.
The electoral battle is being fought for 342 seats in Pakistan’s National Assembly, the largest share being 183 seats from the populous Punjab province. Sharif’s PMLN won 188 seats in the 2013 elections. The Pakistan People’s Party was a distant second with 46 seats, and Khan’s PTI won a mere 34 seats.
Khan was dogged as he pushed for the judicial proceedings against Sharif and his family. He and his party celebrated the verdict as a first in the country’s history where the superrich and powerful have been held to account. Opinion polls show Sharif’s party marginally ahead of Khan’s party.
To investigate the allegations against Sharif and his family arising from the Panama Papers, the Supreme Court set up a team in April 2017, which curiously included officials from Pakistan’s powerful intelligence agencies, Inter-Services Intelligence and Military Intelligence.
Last July, the Supreme Court disqualified Sharif from holding public office because of a misdeclaration. He was found not to have declared a salary he could receive but never actually did from a job in a firm owned by his son in Dubai.
The Sharifs believe that the Supreme Court judgment and the convictions last week were driven by pressure from the military and that the judges were helpless.
Sharif and his daughter appeared dozens of times before the anticorruption court, which made their presence at every hearing mandatory. They sought exemption from appearing in person several times as Sharif’s wife, Kulsoom Nawaz, was found to have cancer last year and was being treated at a hospital in London. She had a heart attack last month and has been on life support since.
Pakistan’s political polarisation is so intense and the decline of civility so acute that supporters of Khan’s PTI described Kulsoom Nawaz’s medical condition as a “political drama” to avoid accountability and generate sympathy before the elections.
Sharif and his daughter intend to appeal their convictions in higher courts and seek bail. The interim law minister has said that they will be arrested at the airport on arrival in Lahore.
It isn’t clear whether the military will permit supporters to assemble in any significant numbers at the airport and risk clashes. The main road from the city to the airport passes through a huge military base.
Sharif and his daughter also need to manage the power struggles within their party. Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Sharif, who was the chief minister of Punjab, has been running the PMLN’s electoral campaign.
He has always advocated avoiding confrontation with the military establishment and the judiciary, and is campaigning primarily on the record of his party’s governance. He has a reputation as an able administrator who delivered developmental projects on time. But he lacks the charisma and the mass support that Nawaz and Maryam Sharif have.
And their rival, Khan, is not hesitating from trying to win support from religious extremists. Last year religious groups besieged Islamabad, the capital, and accused Sharif’s government of blasphemy for changing the wording of an oath for legislators that dealt with a declaration of the Islamic belief that the Prophet Muhammad was the final prophet.
Sharif’s government described the change as a “clerical error” and reversed it. Khan, who has been trying to please religious extremists, accused Sharif’s party of having tried to change the wording of the oath to appease a “foreign lobby.” He repeated the reference recently in a speech.
Concrete political and economic questions in Pakistan have often been overshadowed by charisma and slogans. Sharif and his daughter seem prepared to rally the crowds to vote for their party — neither can run for office as they have been disqualified by the courts — by deploying rhetoric and emotion, even if they have to do that from prison cells. The Sharifs have framed it as the battle for civilian supremacy and democratic values.
It is an ironic state of affairs, especially because Sharif began his political career as a protégé of Gen. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in 1980. He amassed most of his fortune under the military’s watchful eye when he was being propped up to undermine Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and her party in the 1980s and 1990s.
The refrain of a famous poem by Habib Jalib, a great Pakistani poet, saluting Bhutto’s battles with the military said “Dartay hain bandooqon waley ek nehatti ladki se,” or “The men with the guns are scared of an unarmed girl.” A defiant Maryam Nawaz recently recited that sentence in a reference to her own troubles with the military.
While the country’s other three provinces — Sindh, Balochistan and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, earlier known as the North West Frontier province — have a history of defying central authority and of standing up to the military, Punjab has seldom betrayed such tendencies. This is possibly because it is heavily represented in the military.
Sharif is the first popular leader from Punjab to defy the military. The big question is, will Sharif and his daughter’s confrontation win over the electorate in Punjab, or will Punjab follow the directions from the military establishment? What is clear is that the political turmoil is bound to continue even after the election results are declared.
Abbas Nasir is a columnist and former editor of Dawn, the leading English-language newspaper in Pakistan.