Nawaz Sharif ousted in Pakistan: celebrate, but remember the bigger picture

Emotions run high in Lahore. EPA/Rahat Dar

In a landmark judgement, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan disqualified Nawaz Sharif, the prime minister, from holding public office for life. Sharif duly resigned. The development comes in the wake of allegations of corruption against the now ex-prime minister and his family originally made in the so-called “Panama Papers”.

Predictably, the reaction on social media has been largely celebratory, with various analysts declaring this a historic day in Pakistan’s political history. Justice is seen to have prevailed – and the verdict hailed as the beginning of a new era of accountability in the topsy-turvy world of Pakistani politics. Imran Khan, whose party led the campaign and the court case against Sharif, is being cheered, as is the “independent” and “fearless” judiciary.

But the celebrations are overshadowed by uncertainty, and Pakistan is abuzz with questions about what comes next. Who will replace Sharif now – his younger brother, Shehbaz? Will there be early elections? And, if so, will the public sentiment turn against his party, PML-N – perhaps installing Khan in the top job?

Such questions are pressing, but ultimately superficial. To fixate on them is to risk missing the wood for the trees. Sharif’s downfall, however historic in itself, needs to be seen in a wider political and economic context. Take corruption, for instance. As delighted as many international onlookers are to see a developing country’s prime minister brought down amid corruption claims in a courtroom, corruption per se holds little meaning in Pakistani politics.

Last year, I helped organise a debate at a premier Pakistani university on whether Sharif should resign in the wake of the Panama Papers revelations. Nationally known politicians, analysts and lawyers spoke for and against the motion. Given that the audience members were mostly students at one of Pakistan’s elite institutions, most of us expected them to back the PM’s resignation by a landslide. They did vote for it – but by a majority of one.

Pakistan’s political landscape is littered with corrupt politicians, bureaucrats and army generals. Simply declaring them corrupt does nothing to dent their chances in a system based on patronage.

Historically speaking, the correlation between legal transgression and political success is demonstrably weak even at the highest levels. The country’s first elected prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto, was taken to the gallows based on a charge of abetting murder, but his execution only strengthened his voter base. Similarly, his daughter Benazir Bhutto was dismissed as prime minister in 1996, also on charges of corruption, but her chances of re-election barely suffered; long after her assassination in 2007 she looms large in the political imagination, all allegations of corruption seemingly forgotten. Sharif may now have been banned from the top job for life, but there’s no reason to expect his influence to suddenly wither away.

Choose your friends carefully. EPA/Sohail Shahzad

Sharif’s ousting comes just as China starts to fully invest in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. This massive initiative deeply worries both the US and India – both are especially concerned about the port of Gawadar on the strait of Hormuz, a narrow channel connecting the Persian Gulf to the open seas. Its traffic includes almost 35% of all oil traded by sea, making it a hugely sensitive choke point. Many Pakistanis are likely to see Sharif’s dismissal as the price he had to pay for developing ties with China.

Sharif also made positive overtures towards Delhi during each of his spells in office – these irked the army, which likes to justify its size and influence by portraying India as a perpetual threat. That Sharif was dismissed based on evidence collected by a joint investigation team that included a representative of the powerful Interservices Intelligence (ISI) will leave many Pakistanis convinced that disgruntled military top brass played an outsized role in the matter.

Good reality TV

Equally, many are also likely to see this affair as a piece of political theatre intended to divert attention from the economic and political fallout of successive governments’ policies.

On the economic front, the naked neoliberalism of Sharif’s government (and others) has decimated the economy. Chinese products have flooded the markets, while energy shortages and tariff hikes are choking Pakistan’s own industrial base. Corruption is not the main reason for this decline; these are the effects of concrete government policies, all implemented within a electoral system that only allows the population to choose among different factions of the same rapacious elite once every five years.

This prime ministerial scandal also obscures terrible political violence. At home, the military is waging ruthless and murky campaigns in tribal areas, while a brutal crackdown on resistance in Baluchistan has involved hundreds of disappearances. In foreign policy terms, Pakistan remains silent in face of its ally Saudi Arabia’s merciless military assault on Yemen. The Saudi-led “coalition” fighting that war is now being led by Raheel Sharif, who was until recently chief of Pakistan’s armed forces.

Yes, there is much to celebrate here. That a sitting prime minister was dismissed via a rigorous legal process sets a healthy precedent and Khan deserves to be congratulated for his perseverance and tenacity since the Panama Papers emerged. But while the ups and downs of the ruling elite make for good reality TV, they have little bearing on Pakistan’s wider political struggles.

The real questions are not who is caught up in the latest scandal, but what policies are likely to be implemented by any new government – and whether Pakistan’s pride in being a “democracy” is still warranted.