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Sharif’s Long Shot For Civilian Ascendancy In Pakistan

Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif crowd around his car near Islamabad on August.
Supporters of former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif crowd around his car near Islamabad on August.

Two weeks after his ouster, former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has shown he is still one of the most popular political leaders in the country.

But what remains uncertain is how he plans to realize his avowed objective of establishing civilian supremacy in a country reeling from decades of military dictatorships where the military still dominates key policymaking.

“Democracy is another name for respecting the will of the people,” Sharif told journalists on August 14. “Today, on the 70th anniversary of Pakistan’s independence, I want to note that if we had respected the sanctity of votes [and the will of the people] we would not have faced setbacks.”

While not naming those within Pakistan’s powerful security establishment responsible for his ouster, Sharif raised uncomfortable questions for the forces bent on bankrolling representative rule in the country.

“Can any court [in Pakistan] punish dictators who have violated the constitution?” he asked tens of thousands of supporters of his Pakistan Muslim League - Nawaz (PML-N) party on August 12. “All prime ministers [in Pakistan’s history] have been removed. Were all of them corrupt?”

Sharif was keen to point out he was sent packing for merely not declaring a salary he never received from his son’s company in the United Arab Emirates. In his fiery speeches, he subtly equated his July 28 ouster from office by the country’s apex court with an assault on democracy.

“The average for a democratically elected prime minister in Pakistan is a year and a half [in office],” he noted. “Dictators typically rule the country for a decade, but a prime minister cannot even complete his tenure. Why?”

Sharif, a three-time prime minister, was short on the specifics of how he plans to achieve civilian supremacy. He vaguely hinted at constitutional changes to do away with democracy-limiting clauses and said he backed an initiative of dialogue between key state institutions.

“We will back the recommendation of Senate Chairman Raza Rabbani to strengthen the parliament by inviting the prime minister, senior army officers, bureaucrats and the Supreme Court chief justice and hold a dialogue between these institutions,” Sharif said.

Former lawmaker Afrasiab Khattak says Sharif’s ability to mobilize his support base in Punjab is crucial. As the most populous province among Pakistan’s four provinces, Punjab has a majority of seats in the National Assembly, or lower house of the bicameral parliament, where the majority party forms the government.

Nawaz Sharif talking to journalists in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on August 14
Nawaz Sharif talking to journalists in the eastern Pakistani city of Lahore on August 14

Home to an estimated 100 million people, the region also claims a lion’s share of national resources and dominates national institutions including the military, where almost all senior generals and most soldiers are recruited from the province awash with industry and agriculture. All of this enables Punjab to maintain an informal domination over other provinces and regions.

“Mobilization of the people in Punjab is crucial for establishing civilian supremacy, as unlike the voices from the periphery [regions] the voice of the core of the state [in Punjab] can’t be ignored,” he wrote, referring to Punjab’s crucial role in deciding the future of Pakistan’s democracy. “The most important question is who will rule Pakistan -- the elected representatives of the people or the security establishment?”

Khattak and other politicians from minority provinces in Pakistan often criticize Punjab’s domineering role. But Sharif’s apparent change of heart has not convinced many. Days after his protest, there are signs of strong opposition to his likely pushback against the military from within Pakistan’s often-quarreling politicians.

“The PML-N must answer why it talks about democracy but follows a monarchy,” opposition leader Imran Khan said in an apparent reference to Sharif’s monopoly over his party’s leadership. Khan’s Tehreek-e Insaf, or movement for justice, party was behind the court cases that ultimately led to Sharif’s removal from office.

Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the young leader of the opposition Pakistan People’s Party, is also keen on questioning Sharif’s motives.

“Whenever there is a threat to democracy, I will come forward to defend it,” he told reporters on August 11. “But now there is no threat to the democratic political system. Only Nawaz Sharif is personally under threat.”

The two parties are unlikely to lend a helping hand to Sharif’s PML-N to change the constitution. PML-N currently lacks a two-third majority in both houses of parliament, which is required for changing the supreme law.

In a good omen for Sharif, Pakistan’s powerful military chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa is attempting to stay above the fray. Unlike his predecessor, General Raheel Sharif, Bajwa has shown no visible attempts to undermine the civilian government after he was picked by Sharif in November.

“During our past journey, we made some mistakes and have learned from them,” he said on August 14. “Today Pakistan is moving forward on the right path, which is that of the constitution and the [rule of law].”

It is, however, not clear whether his views are shared and followed by other powerful generals under his command.