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In Sharif’s Removal, Pakistani Democracy Suffers A Major Setback

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif
Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif

Pakistan is witnessing a new reiteration of an old political drama. Yet another elected prime minister has been ousted from power before completing his term in office.

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was disqualified by the country’s apex court on July 28 for undeclared assets. His removal from office, the third in a tumultuous political career spanning three decades, has plunged the country into political crisis.

Sharif’s loyalists scrambled to respond to the verdict and contain the fallout from the decision, which immediately resulted in the collapse of his administration.

Opposition politicians, on the other hand, were jubilant.

"The Supreme Court’s decision has given hope to the people of Pakistan today,” said Imran Khan, leader of Pakistan Tehreek-e Insaf (PTI), the main opposition party. “Everyone will be held accountable now. This is the beginning.”

A cursory look at Pakistan’s seven-decade history shows that such accountability is unlikely. The decision is likely to further undermine the country’s anemic democracy, which has suffered frequent coups and is under the shadow of a powerful security establishment -- a euphemism for military generals largely viewed as orchestrating Pakistan’s security and foreign policies.

Four military generals have ruled the country for more than 33 years after launching coups or inheriting power from another military ruler. While not in power, the generals pulled strings by forming a king’s party to attract turncoat politicians, orchestrating elections, and even engineering the downfall of leaders who refused to toe their line. Sharif, a steel magnate from the eastern province of Punjab, was groomed by former military dictator General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq in the 1980s.

Khawaja Saad Rafique, a former minister and senior leader of Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, says his leader’s ouster is the continuation of a cycle wherein the establishment goes after civilian politicians.

“We know very well the supposed real crime of Nawaz Sharif and the Pakistan Muslim League: wanting to establish civilian supremacy in Pakistan,” he told journalists in Islamabad on July 28 hours after the verdict. “We are elected into the corridors of power but are often humiliated out. We are also frequently thrown into prison.”

It is telling that none of Pakistan’s civilian prime ministers completed their terms in office. Most were assassinated, deposed, executed after controversial court verdicts, or sent into exile.

In 1993, Sharif’s first term in office ended after then President Ghulam Ishaq Khan dissolved his government and the parliament. He was re-elected in 1997 but was ousted in a military coup in October 1999 led by military chief General Pervez Musharraf. He later spent years in exile while Musharraf maintained a stranglehold over power until late 2007.

“While everyone else hides in their homes, we fight against the dictatorships. We have often sacrificed our lives to restore democracy in this country,” Rafique said of his party’s struggle under Musharraf and the resilience shown by Pakistani politicos.

“Once in power, we make more sacrifices to put our house in order,” he added, alluding to how civilian leaders typically shy away from challenging military dominance when faced with difficult decisions.

Weak political parties, mostly held together by loyalty to dynasties instead of manifestos or paths of action, often lack leadership, transparency, and democracy. In recent decades, rich industrialists, business tycoons, and feudal leaders have dominated political parties to amass wealth and power.

Sharif’s immediate challenge now is to preserve his party’s administration in Islamabad by trying to hold on to his party’s majority in the National Assembly, or lower house of the Pakistani Parliament, which elects the prime minister.

However, the path forward for Pakistani democracy is less clear. After Sharif’s ouster, veteran politician Javed Hashmi reiterated his stance that the verdict was part of a judicial coup -- a new form of military-orchestrated power grab.

“Imran Khan told me that this time around they would get rid of Sharif through the Supreme Court,” he told journalists in the central city of Multan on July 28. “Today, once again, I want to reiterate that we should form a military court, which should also call on Khan and Musharraf to [establish who orchestrated this conspiracy] and clear the whole thing.”

Former lawmaker Hashmi was once a diehard supporter of Sharif but left his party in 2011 to join Khan’s PTI. However, he left the PTI in 2014, when Khan attempted to force Sharif out of office through a sit-in in front of the parliament over alleged election rigging. Hashmi said military generals had choreographed the agitation.

In the run-up to Sharif’s ouster, Hashmi questioned why Pakistani courts have failed to hold Musharraf accountable in various cases, including allegedly subverting the constitution.

“We cannot even speak about him. Can anyone punish him?" Hashmi asked.