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Sharif’s summer of discontent

Here we are sharing an article written by ZAHID HUSSAIN published in Dawn on 27th April 2016.

It is quite evident that Nawaz Sharif is not willing to give in to the opposition pressure. He has already addressed the nation twice since the Panama Papers leak. To many, it is reminiscent of his embattled days in the twilight of his first term in office in 1993. The parallel may not be fully relevant here, but what is common is the desperate situation in which the prime minister has landed himself.

Sharif has never been a great communicator. But his speech last week betrayed a perceptible sense of despair as he struggled to defend himself and his family against the allegation of graft. It is not merely an issue of being implicated in a scandal. The charges against the prime minister have come when he already has enough problems — each one more difficult to resolve than the other. It now appears that he is fighting a desperate battle in the face of growing political opposition.

Apparently conceding to the opposition’s demand, Sharif has now called upon the chief justice to appoint a judicial commission to investigate the allegations of corruption. He says he is willing to step down if any wrongdoing is proved against him.

It sounds quite rational: a sitting prime minister presenting himself before a court of inquiry for the first time in the country’s history. But that gracious offer has failed to calm a vociferous opposition. There is still no clarity about the scope of the investigation to be undertaken by the judicial commission that is yet to be formed. It seems that the commission will not be only probing the Panama Papers leak but all the corruption charges spanning over the past several decades.

It is déjà vu all over again for the third-time prime minister.

That takes away the focus from the Panamagate scandal which directly involves the Sharif family. Moreover, it is not certain that the chief justice would respond positively to the prime minister’s request given his earlier refusal to get the Supreme Court involved in the graft investigation. Besides, the commission has already become controversial even before it has been formed, thereby making it more difficult for the chief justice to reverse his previous decision.

There is no indication yet of the government agreeing to the opposition demand for framing mutually acceptable Terms of Reference (ToR) for the commission. This stand-off seems to have worsened with Imran Khan threatening to take to the streets. Meanwhile, Sharif has also decided to go to the masses to counter the opposition, making the situation more precarious.

It is certainly the biggest challenge Sharif has faced in his third term in office. The situation is far more serious than it was during the 2014 Imran-Qadri dharna. This time he and his family are directly implicated in the scandal with not much to defend himself with against the allegations of ill-gotten foreign wealth. He is on a sticky wicket with his moral authority at its lowest.

What could still save him though is his overwhelming majority in parliament. Furthermore, though the PPP and the PTI appear to be united on the demand for limiting the scope of the proposed judicial commission to the investigation of the Panama Papers scandal and the sources of Sharif’s foreign wealth, the PPP is not willing to take to the streets. That effectively leaves the PTI alone in the field to challenge Sharif.

For sure, the PTI’s mass support base has remained intact despite the setback the party had received during the prolonged dharna and as a result of its policy of perpetual agitation. Its impressive show of strength in Islamabad last week on the 20th anniversary of the party’s founding has proved detractors wrong. But can the party on its own bring out enough people to put the government under pressure? That is not a certainty.

A major challenge for the prime minister is how to deal with the situation if the stalemate over the formation of the judicial commission and its mandate persists. Sharif’s own moral and legal legitimacy is at stake if the Panamagate scandal remains unresolved.

Another factor adding to Sharif’s worries is the role of the military in the current scenario. It is quite obvious that the generals will not sit on the fence watching the political crisis affecting governance. The unprecedented statement by the army chief calling for “across-the-board accountability” is quite ominous. Many analysts see it as a warning to the government.

It is quite interesting that the names of some senior army officers sacked on corruption charges through an internal inquiry surfaced soon after Gen Raheel Sharif’s accountability statement. Such actions are routine in the military, but they are never made public. Though the news was not officially released by the ISPR, it is quite obvious that the leak was a deliberate move to claim the high moral ground. Widespread media coverage of the action was meant to boost the image of the army and add pressure on the government for a conclusive investigation into the Panama Papers.

The Panamagate scandal has changed the entire political dynamics in the country. Until the leaks, the balance of power seemed to have tilted more towards the civilian government though the military continued to maintain an upper hand in internal security matters. But with the credibility and legitimacy of the government in question, the situation allows the military greater space.

With both Sharif and the PTI taking their battle to the streets, there is little hope of the political crisis being defused very soon. It is déjà vu all over again for Sharif who lost power twice in the past halfway through his terms as a result of confrontation between the various centres of power. The situation may be heading towards the same end if the political parties fail to reach an agreement on an impartial and transparent investigation into the scandal.

A prolonged political stand-off may irreversibly damage the democratic process in the country. A leadership tainted by allegations of corruption cannot protect the system. Can Sharif survive this summer of discontent? The situation does not augur well for the third-time prime minister.

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Vision 21 is Pakistan based non-profit, non- party Socio-Political organisation. We work through research and advocacy for developing and improving Human Capital, by focusing on Poverty and Misery Alleviation, Rights Awareness, Human Dignity, Women empowerment and Justice as a right and obligation. We act to promote and actively seek Human well-being and happiness by working side by side with the deprived and have-nots.

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