By Husain Haqqani
July 9, 2018
For the first 23 years after independence
in 1947, Pakistanis were denied the right to vote. Since 1970, they have been
allowed to vote intermittently but they are still denied the right to vote
freely. The upcoming July 25 election in Pakistan has been marred by a series
of attacks, some by the judiciary and others by the country’s ubiquitous
military-intelligence machinery, aimed at politically decapitating former Prime
Minister Nawaz Sharif and his Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).
Sharif was disqualified a few months ago by
the Supreme Court for not fulfilling the constitutional criteria for honesty
and sagacity. Few, if any, prominent Pakistani politicians fulfill that vague
requirement. It was inserted into the constitution by Sharif’s original mentor,
General Zia ul Haq, precisely because its vagueness enabled unelected branches
of government to choose who could or could not run for elected office.
Ironically, Sharif refused to support other
political parties in deleting the articles of the constitution that were used
to disqualify him just a few years ago. His trial, and conviction last week for
possessing assets beyond his means, seems like poetic justice to those who hate
the fact that he started his career as a military protege, amassed considerable
wealth while in office, and went on to build an independent political base in
the Punjab province with the help of that wealth. But those who can rise above
their pique at Sharif or other individual politicians realise that no
politician in Pakistan is ever punished for corruption and Sharif is no
exception. Sharif’s career affirms the unwritten law of Pakistani politics: A
politician can be corrupt or he/she can oppose the military-led Pakistani
establishment but he cannot be corrupt and anti-military at the same time.
In the 1990s, when Sharif and the PML-N
were backed by the military, the institutions of state (including the judiciary)
found nothing wrong with their acquisition of wealth. The focus then was on the
alleged corruption of Benazir Bhutto’s husband Asif Zardari. Sharif supported
selective accountability against Bhutto and Zardari and the latter spent 11
years in prison without being convicted.
But General Musharraf’s 1999 coup
transformed Sharif. He was now anti-establishment and critical of the military
and that is what seems to have cooked his goose. Since his return from exile
after Musharraf’s downfall, Sharif made no effort to partner with the Pakistan
Peoples Party of Bhutto and Zardari to undo the legal regime that allows the
judiciary to intervene in political matters.
Sharif himself took petitions to the
Supreme Court against the Zardari government, including the so-called Memogate
case that affected me personally. I was accused of writing a memo inviting US
support against an impending coup. There was no coup in the works at the time
and I wrote no memo of the sort that was alleged. But I was supposed to rebut the
story woven by a Pakistani-origin businessman living in Monaco to “clear” my
name. This inverted the normal system of criminal law, which requires
prosecutors to prove guilt beyond doubt at trial. Instead of being the court of
final appeal, the Supreme Court acted as the court of first instance.
Sharif himself became a victim of this
perverted system of justice when, after the appearance of his name in the
Panama Papers, the Court insisted that he prove the provenance of his
properties in London. The former PM was disqualified before he was tried. Even
at trial, the judge concluded that the ownership of the London properties in
question could not be ascertained. He still went on to convict Sharif for
failing to prove where he got the money to buy these properties. One need not
be convinced of Sharif’s innocence to observe that he was a victim of less than
transparent legal proceedings. His downfall started when the military got upset
with an article in Dawn suggesting that the civilian government wanted to act
against the Jihadis but the military did not.
Corruption is a painful reality of
Pakistani politics but so is the fact that it is Pakistan’s military that
decides who remains in politics and who is ousted through court judgments.
After 60 years of direct and indirect meddling in politics, the military has
not been able to create its ideal polity and Pakistan remains unstable and
mired in corruption.
For the last three years, Sharif has been
the target of a relentless propaganda war and the shenanigans of Pakistan’s
invisible government. Just as Sharif was the beneficiary of similar manoeuvres
against Bhutto in the 1988 and 1990 elections, cricketer-turned-politician
Imran Khan is the intended beneficiary of the campaign against Sharif. Apart
from judicial rulings, Khan is being aided through coerced changes in loyalty
of locally influential politicians and pressures on the media to black out
anything that, disfavours the preferred candidate in the coming election.
A civilian leader must deliver a measure of
prosperity and economic development to maintain political support. Contrary to
the military’s narrative, the major reason for Pakistan’s economic difficulties
is not just corruption; it is lack of investment and expansion of productivity
resulting from the country being seen as a jihadi safe haven.
Even in this election, several groups of
jihadis and assorted extremists have been allowed to participate. One of them —
Khadim Husain Rizvi of Tehrik Labbaik Ya Rasool Allah — told an election rally
recently that he would nuke the Netherlands if someone there ever published a
cartoon of Prophet Muhammad. Tolerance for and mainstreaming of such dangerous
individuals is unlikely to bolster Pakistan’s image or economic prospects.
Civil-military tension is built in into
Pakistan’s current structure of state. If civilians defer to the military
leadership without any questions, they lose popular support and have to face
all the blame that comes with supporting the military’s monochromatic policies.
If, however, they dare to disagree like Nawaz Sharif did, they would lose the
institution’s backing just as Sharif lost it over the years. Then we would see
them becoming targets of similar viciousness and possibly adverse judicial
Unfortunately, the election on July 25 will
not rid Pakistan of that tension.
Husain Haqqani is director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson
Institute in Washington D.C. and was Pakistan’s ambassador to the US between
2008 -11. His latest book is Reimagining Pakistan