The man who lost his government and was imprisoned and exiled after confronting Pakistan’s powerful generals once again appears to be taking on a younger generation of military leaders.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif now appears to be facing pressure to leave office after the Panama Papers leak revealed that his children owned apartments in an upscale London neighborhood.
On April 24, major protest rallies in the capital Islamabad, the eastern city of Lahore, and the southern sea port city of Karachi demanded his resignation. While the protests were held by different political parties, their unanimous message of calling on Sharif to step down led many to conclude that Pakistan’s powerful security establishment had orchestrated them.
Pressure against a previously smooth-sailing Sharif mounted significantly last week after Pakistani army chief General Raheel Sahrif declared that “across-the-board accountability is necessary for the solidarity, integrity, and prosperity of Pakistan” and that Islamabad cannot win its domestic war against terrorism unless “the menace of corruption is uprooted.” The two Sharifs are not related.
Days later, Sharif countered and announced a public commission to probe allegations against his family.
"I challenge all those who allege tax fraud to come forward and present evidence. If charges are proved against me, I will resign immediately," he said during a televised address on April 22.
“It is the same old game,” says former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak. “Khakis,” referring to the military uniform, “are maximizing their turf at the expense of civilians.”
While Pakistan’s military has dominated national security and the country’s foreign policy for decades, Khattak says the generals now seem determined to use the controversy stirred by the Panama leaks to squeeze out Sharif.
“The Panama leaks are a God-given opportunity that they want to use,” he said. “The venue of agitation is to going to move to Lahore, the real bastion of the Sharif empire.”
Sharif’s family have denied wrongdoing. They countered that the nearly $14 million used as collateral for the apartments came from the sale of a business in Saudi Arabia, where the family spent nearly eight years after being in exiled in 2000 by former military dictator General Pervez Musharraf, who overthrew Sharif in October 1999.
Sharif reclaimed power because of strong support in Punjab, Pakistan’s most populous and prosperous province. Its capital, Lahore, is a key stronghold of Sharif, whose family made its fortune through the steel business in the city.
But cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who also counts Lahore as his home turf, is desperate to oust Sharif from power. His Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf political party appears poised to cash in on the growing divide between the institutions led by the two Sharifs.
“The nation will hold you [Nawaz Sharif] accountable. They will take to the streets,” Khan told supporters on April 24. “You will have to go. How would you ask others to pay tax when you yourself are corrupt? When you don’t declare your assets, how can you ask others to do declare theirs?”
Sharif barely survived a sit-in by Khan’s supporters that crippled Islamabad for months in 2014 alleging election fraud.
“Most probably the government will limp through the crisis,” Khattak said.
Observers, however, say that even if the prime minister survives another confrontation with the military his authority will be diminished further and it might prevent him from delivering on the tall election promises he made in 2013.