Date first published: 01/08/2017

Key sectors:all

Key risks:political instability, economic risks, security risks

After years of battling the influence of Pakistan’s powerful military, a popular prime minister was dismissed from office. The dismissal came after accusations of corruption, money laundering, nepotism and acts ”in contravention of the Constitution”. The leader of the opposition claimed justice was done. Many welcomed the new culture of accountability. The Prime Minister was Benazir Bhutto. And the Leader of the Opposition was Nawaz Sharif.

On Friday, the Supreme Court unanimously voted to remove Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, finding him unfit for office. The verdict followed a report by a Joint Investigation Team (JIT) which investigated allegations Sharif’s family engaged in money laundering in the 1990s. There is substantial evidence of Sharif’s guilt – not least the apparent fabrication of documents, written with a font unavailable at the time of its stated writing. But the Court’s decision is not a victory for accountability, nor for democracy.

Pakistan’s judiciary is independent from the government. This can be illustrated by two episodes. In 2007, Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry refused to resign despite demands from President Pervez Musharraf, and the episode hastened Musharraf’s departure. In June 2012, the Court removed Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani from office after he refused to comply with an order to reopen a dormant corruption inquiry against then President Asif Ali Zardari. Yet being independent from the government does not mean that it is independent. While the Court has held sitting prime ministers to account, it has done little to hold the military to account for human rights violations or corruption. There are continued accusations the military and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) were involved in drafting the JIT report into the Sharif family’s corruption. Furthermore, there are questions over the jurisprudence underpinning its decision. The Court’s decision to disqualify Sharif is based on the vague Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, which demands holders of elected office be ‘honest and pure’. The Court could remove PTI leader Imran Khan based on the same clause.

Nawaz’s ousting may show that despite a seemingly orderly transition of government in 2013, the military continues to dominant Pakistani politics. There is ample evidence to suggest Sharif’s removal was preceded by a breakdown in civil-military relations. Following the Easter 2016 Lahore bombing, then Army Chief of Staff Raheel Sharif (no relation) announced a counter-terrorism operation in Punjab, with the army telling media to emphasize that the orders for the Punjab operation were given directly by the General and not the prime minister. This act eroded the civilian government’s control over the province. Reports suggest that Nawaz Sharif and General Sharif had a semi public spat over the institution’s alleged support for anti-Indian militant groups. The army further appeared to increase its influence by announcing new counter-military operations after a spate of terrorist attacks in February.

Sharif’s removal thus reflects, rather than alters, the existing political order. Sharif remains in control of the ruling PML-N, and his brother Shahbaz Sharif is likely to become the next prime minister. The military, and leading political parties, are supportive of Chinese investment via the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. Nawaz’s relatively successful economic policies and fiscal consolidation programme will likely continue irrespective of which party wins the 2018 election. The military is unlikely to soften their stance towards India, and tensions in Kashmir will grow. Sharif’s removal highlights that the military remains in charge – a situation that is unlikely to change for the foreseeable future.