What Nawaz Sharif’s Ouster Means for Pakistan

The resignation of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over a corruption scandal signals that Pakistani politics could head in a more independent path at home and abroad, says Junaid Ahmad of the University of Lahore

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Story Transcript

AARON MATE: It’s the Real News. I’m Aaron Mate. A corruption scandal has forced the ouster of Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Sharif resigned Friday after the Supreme Court declared him unfit for office and ordered a criminal investigation into his family. The case began with the leaked Panama Papers last year. Sharif’s children were found to own extensive foreign properties through off-shore accounts. The ruling stands to end the political career of a leader who has dominated Pakistani politics over three decades. Sharif was close to completing his third term as prime minister.

Junaid Ahmad is director of The Center for Global Dialogue and professor of Middle Eastern politics at the University of Lahore in Pakistan. He’s also a visiting fellow at the Berkeley Islamophobia and Ethnic Studies Graduate Center. Junaid, welcome.

JUNAID AHMAD: Good to be with you again.

AARON MATE: Thank you for coming back. Talk to us about this ruling, what it entails, and was it a surprise?

JUNAID AHMAD: Actually, probably it wasn’t so much a surprise. It still was welcomed with great jubilation since last night. It’s quite historic in the sense that a sitting prime minister held to account by the judiciary in the way that it has been over the course of many months, very intricate processions against him and his immediate family. This has been unprecedented. In the past, where you may have had military coups and other forms of direct or indirect military intervention, often through controlling the judiciary, this time it was seen as an independent judiciary taking action against an undoubtedly corrupt sitting Prime Minister.

AARON MATE: The ruling was unanimous, right? It was all five justices, but when you say that there was jubilation, can you explain that? Because many people are probably just hearing about this case for the first time.

JUNAID AHMAD: Absolutely. Of course, I say this with the caveat that the die-hard supporters of the sitting Prime Minister’s political party, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Sharif Group, except for them, the rest of the country and particularly one opposition political party called the PTI, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, which means a movement for justice, led by the former cricketer turned politician, Imran Khan, very popular political leader in the country, they were able to mobilize for many, many months a broad swathe of the Pakistani population to oppose the corruption of this government, and particularly of the family of Nawaz Sharif.

As opposed to the past, where you would have had somewhat of an indifferent or an apathetic response to such maneuverings of the higher ups, whether some military coup, transition from one civilian political order to another, at this particular point, there was a moment in which the people of Pakistan really did feel, now this of course will be tested in the months to come, but really did feel that because of their political mobilization, because of the raised political consciousness of the people in holding their leaders accountable, that the Supreme Court was forced to undertake this investigation against the sitting Prime Minister, and ultimately give this verdict.

AARON MATE: So let me ask you then, given the Supreme Court’s bold action here, have they raised the bar in terms of standards for public officials and corruption? And if so, could this ruling lead to the ouster of more officials?

JUNAID AHMAD: Right, so this is the crucial question now, whether this actually represents an independent judiciary that will act indiscriminately against all of the high and mighty of the country, no matter what political party they belong to, and of course for many other observers, this also raises the question of whether the folks associated with the military establishment, which is very powerful in Pakistan, whether they will also be held to account. These are some of the questions that are being raised, but there is no doubt that since the Lawyers’ Movement of 2007, and the larger social and political movements that arose at that time that ousted the military dictatorship of Pervez Musharraf, and restored the Chief Justice that was removed by that military dictatorship, since that time, there’s no question that the judiciary in Pakistan and the Supreme Court has taken on a courageous independence that it’s not been seen in the country for its entire history. This is part of that pattern of “judicial activism” in a positive sense, not in the sense taken here in the United States, but in a positive sense, that the Pakistani people have always been yearning for.

AARON MATE: What about the role of the military establishment that you mentioned? I mean, you also mentioned earlier that there have been military coups before, and one of them targeted Sharif, he was ousted in ’99, if I remember correctly. Do you think that this ruling has the support now of the military establishment, and if so, did that possibly influence the decision?

JUNAID AHMAD: Yeah. It’s important to remember also that in 1999, and it’s a perfect example of what I was saying earlier, how normally in these circumstances, the Pakistani population tends to be fairly indifferent to the outcome of these machinations of the elite of the country. But in 1999, it’s also important to remember that Musharraf was the Chief of Army Staff under Nawaz Sharif, and when Musharraf was being removed from his position, not only was he being removed, but he was not being allowed to land back in Pakistani territory on a flight which was low on fuel, so essentially, Nawaz Sharif was probably trying to kill Musharraf on a plane, and that is when Musharraf came back into the country and the military coup was launched against Nawaz Sharif, and there weren’t people out on the streets trying to defend the government of Nawaz Sharif at that time.

The question you posed is important. To what extent is the role of the military establishment in all of this? There’s no doubt that it continues to wield extraordinary influence on matters of national security, on foreign relations, and so on, but I think that people are very skeptical that it will take a direct role in governing the country this time. I also think that there are significant geopolitical interests at stake. People are very much framing this as merely an issue of internal politics within Pakistan and what’s going on, which is very, very important and I think central, but beyond that, there are other factors as well, in some ways related to the type of fissures in place within the United States, between the deep state on the one hand, and the personal business aggrandizement of the Trump administration on the other.

In Pakistan, one sees a parallel situation with Nawaz Sharif almost selling himself to New Delhi, to Washington, to Riyadh, et cetera, as someone, a man they can do business with, and who can continue to wage their so-called war on terror, whereas the military establishment in Pakistan is becoming much keener to develop its ties with Beijing, they’ve always been there, but to deepen those ties strategically, militarily, and economically. So those factors are there as well.

AARON MATE: From that angle, then, the ouster of Sharif could be seen as a setback for the US establishment?

JUNAID AHMAD: Yeah. I don’t want to overstate this too much, but it is clear that civilian politicians at least over the past few decades have very easily been able to be controlled by Washington. The previous one, Zardari, was seen as another puppet of Washington. His ambassador to Washington should have been perhaps Washington’s ambassador to Islamabad. And Nawaz Sharif increasingly was being seen as the same, and so I do think that it is a set back for this kind of US, Saudi, New Delhi axis, and I think that the Chinese and the Pakistani establishment, the ties between them have only deepened and they didn’t want anything to get in the way of that deepening of their relationship.

AARON MATE: What about the implications for the fight against the Pakistani Taliban? Sharif, as you mentioned, was a close US ally that was bitterly criticized by his rival, Imran Kahn, who you mentioned. What could his departure mean for that front?

JUNAID AHMAD: Right. I think that Nawaz Sharif was a politician that, like all politicians, have been all over the place on the question of confronting terrorism, militancy, the Taliban, and so on, and so at this particular point, in the past of course, many criticized him for his ties to many of these groups in the Punjab and so on. Now, many were saying that he was undertaking genuine operations against many of these outfits in the Punjab, but principally not as a matter of principle, but because of the relations that he wanted to establish for his own personal business dealings with India, whether it’s his sugar mills, so on and so forth, wanted to stop the support for some of the groups in the Kashmir conflict with India, so on and so forth.

So again, there’s nothing that was being undertaken as a matter of principle, but just for his personal aggrandizement, whereas Imran Kahn and the PTI have consistently said that they are opposed to a military solution to the question of a rising militancy and think that the war on terror has been counter-productive, which it clearly has been, because one just has to see the rise in the level of suicide bombings and so on, and that some type of diplomatic negotiated settlement needs to happen, both in the question of the Northwest of Pakistan, and especially the question of Afghanistan.

AARON MATE: Finally, Junaid, let’s talk about what comes next. Sharif has been ousted from office but he’s still, as I understand it, the leader of his party, so a replacement will have to be chosen, and then looking ahead, we have these key elections coming up in 2018. What happens from here, and what are the key issues that you’ll be looking at going forward in the aftermath of Sharif’s ouster?

JUNAID AHMAD: I think that the immediate question will be who, he’ll still be head of the party, who he will appoint as his successor. Many people are saying it may be his brother, who’s currently the Chief Minister of the dominant province of the country, the Punjab, and the Punjab is the province where his political party wields its greatest strength by far. But beyond that, it will be a question of to the extent to which this very dominant political party of the Sharif brothers, the Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz Sharif, how much it will be able to retain its strength in the country, or will it suffer the fate of the other major political party that has dominated Pakistani political life, the Pakistan People’s Party, which basically after the last stint of the Zardari regime, Zardari, remember, the husband of the late Benazir Bhutto, the very corrupt husband, it must be mentioned.

As his rule has essentially discredited the Pakistan People’s Party, let’s see to what extent the PML-N will lose popularity and be discredited. Probably not as much, since it has much deeper roots, but the larger question is to what extent can Imran Kahn’s PTI, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, this movement for justice, make inroads into the political process. It is governing in the KPK province, which borders Afghanistan, right now, but how well it can do in Punjab. The other question is to what extent the military will sit and watch as these political developments unfold, which most people suspect they will continue to play a role behind the scenes and not intervene directly in this process.

AARON MATE: Junaid Ahmad, Director of the Center for Global Dialogue and Professor of Middle Eastern Politics at the University of Lahore, Pakistan. He’s also visiting fellow at the Berkeley Islamophobia and Ethnic Studies Graduate Center. Junaid, thank you as always.

JUNAID AHMAD: Thanks so much for having me.

AARON MATE: And thank you for joining us on the Real News.