Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?

To call Nawaz Sharif a political survivor is an understatement. He has an almost Houdini like ability to bounce back from near political death and humiliation. He has been Pakistan’s Prime Minister on three occasions never completing a single term. His political career has been a ‘roller coaster’ ride; marked by scandal, corruption, prison sentences, often intense feuding with political rivals and a tempestuous relationship with the Army.

Born in 1949 into a family of privileged industrialists, he completed a law degree at the University of Punjab making his foray into politics in 1976 (Joining the PML) after Zulfikar Ali Bhutto nationalised his family businesses. In 1981 he joined the provincial Punjab cabinet as Finance Minister becoming Chief Minister in 1985. The PML later split, and Nawaz Sharif formed the PML-N (N for Nawaz).

In 1990 he was elected as Prime Minister for the first time (ironically given his later accusations about the Army some argued that this election was ‘rigged’ in his favour by Pakistan’s ‘deep state’: its military establishment). His first term came to end abruptly in 1993 when the President dismissed him for corruption. Sharif successfully appealed the dismissal via the Supreme Court but was persuaded to move on by the then Army Chief. He was to be replaced by Benazir Bhutto and the PPP (Pakistan People’s Party).

Corruption is a fact of life in Pakistan. It is endemic, corrosive and ubiquitous. Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index, for example, ranks the country 117th place out of 180 countries. Many politicians have long used politics as a way of enriching themselves. As the Pakistani writer Omar Waraich notes:

In Pakistan, everything can be negotiated—the rules are rarely fixed. For the right price, through the right connections, or in return for a favour, you can get things done. Many politicians who enrich themselves rationalise their corrupt practices as somehow serving a noble purpose: they justify their actions claiming they are either helping out their constituents, their party, or even their own family.

Lo and behold after the controversial assassination of her brother, Benazir Bhutto’s administration also marred by corruption was much like Sharif’s disbanded by the President. This allowed Sharif to return to power via a landslide in 1997. In 1998, his administration tested nuclear weapons to popular acclaim: officially announcing Pakistan as a nuclear state. Once again, he couldn’t complete his term, and his government ended in scandal and drama.

The fallout from the Kargil Fiasco led General Musharraf to come to power via a military coup. Sharif was handed a life sentence for issuing orders telling ground control to refuse landing permission to a Karachi bound airliner. The plane then apparently ran out of fuel endangering the lives of everyone on board including General Pervez Musharraf who had come to power that day. Because of a Saudi brokered deal, Sharif was allowed to leave Pakistan as an exile to Saudi Arabia for ten years. At this stage, many assumed for good reason that Sharif was finished as a political force in Pakistan.

This assumption proved immature, and when General Musharraf called elections for early 2008, Sharif returned to Pakistan and into politics. The PPP won the election in part due to a wave of sympathy generated by the assassination of its leader Benazir Bhutto, but PML-N joined them in a coalition. Musharraf became President. In August of that year the coalition worked together to impeach Musharraf, he duly resigned before impeachment proceedings began.

In 2013 Sharif returned for his third term in power with a comfortable majority. In Imran Khan- the cricketer turned politician-he found himself with a new foe. His third term made significant progress in improving the security and economic situation in Pakistan. Economic development in large part in this period was driven by ‘mega-projects’ raising questions about its long-term sustainability. Scandal, however, wasn’t far aware.

The release of the Panama Papers in 2016 proved a turning point for Nawaz Sharif and his family. The Panama papers were uncovered by a consortium of journalists from a legal practice in the off-shore tax haven. The documents revealed that alongside other World leaders the Sharif ‘clan’ had wealth stashed overseas that had not been declared to the Pakistani people. The wealth included properties in desirable parts of London, companies across continents and business deals with some Gulf royal families.

After legal proceedings, Nawaz Sharif was barred from political office by the Supreme Court because of undeclared wealth in July 2017: signifying another uncompleted term. The Supreme Court then requested the NAB (National Accountability Bureau) further investigate and try Sharif for Corruption. The NAB concluded its investigations focused on the Sharif families London properties last week. The court handed down a ten-year sentence to Nawaz Sharif, seven years to his daughter and a year to his son in law. The court also fined the family 10 million pounds and ordered the seizure of the Avenfield properties. While there is little doubt of Sharif’s corruption it is also highly likely that the ‘deep state’ played a role in ensuring the verdict.

If NAB and the Supreme court are truly serious about fighting corruption, then it’s imperative they also hold to account the likes of Asif Zardari and General Musharraf. Nawaz Sharif and his ‘clan’ represent much that is wrong with Pakistani politics; greed, dynasticism, nepotism, cronyism. There is a clear link between corruption and poverty and whilst such people may have achieved some good things in power they have also impoverished Pakistan.

Given the endemic nature of high-level corruption in Pakistan, this verdict will have a powerful resonance throughout Pakistani politics and society. It sends out a much-needed message that nobody is above the law and reflects a greater institutional ‘maturity’. For long, democratic governments have flattered to deceive in Pakistan with neither Benazir Bhutto nor Nawaz Sharif completing a single term despite being elected several times (a total of 5 occasions) and their governments were almost invariably marred by scandal and misrule.

Recent elections in Pakistan have led to the victory of Imran Khan’s PTI- Tehreek-i-Insaf; or Party of Justice-. The election was indeed controversial with technical problems on the day and involvement of the ‘deep state’ in ensuring the PTI’s success. Nevertheless, there seems to be a renewed sense of purpose amongst many given that in Imran Khan for the first time in a long while a non-dynastic and non-corrupt candidate has become Prime Minister. Nawaz Sharif’s PML-N suffered badly–and although its supporters naturally blame the Military establishment–that in only part of the story; corruption, incompetence and a poor electoral campaign were no less important. Given Nawaz Sharif’s political history though, only a fool would argue this is the end for him.