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Uncertainty ahead: On Pakistan political crisis
Posted:Jul 31, 2017
 
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The disqualification of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding public office, by the Pakistan Supreme Court in the Panama Papers case, leaves a huge political vacuum in the country. This is the third time Mr. Sharif’s premiership has been cut short. If his first two terms were ended by the country’s powerful military, first forcing him to resign and then overthrowing his government in a coup, this time it was through a formal legal process. The Supreme Court invoked a controversial Article of the Constitution that requires politicians to be “honest” and “righteous”. 
 
The court ruled that Mr. Sharif was dishonest in failing to disclose in his 2013 election nomination papers his association with a UAE-based company and therefore was unfit to continue in office. The court also referred money-laundering allegations against Mr. Sharif and his children to the National Accountability Bureau, the anti-corruption regulator. While Opposition politicians, especially the Tehreek-e-Insaf’s Imran Khan who filed a petition in the Supreme Court against the Sharif family, have welcomed the ruling as an endorsement of accountability, there are some worrying legal and procedural questions about the Supreme Court’s decision. For instance, should it have waited for the full investigation into the corruption allegations before disqualifying him?
 
At the practical level, the focus is on whether Mr. Sharif’s exit will fuel political instability. A seasoned politician with immense popularity and experience in dealing with the military, he upheld his authority in his third term despite sustained pressure from the generals. There were occasional flashpoints, but the military largely refrained from showing its hand. It had chosen to exercise its powers over the executive indirectly, to avoid public disenchantment of the sort that undermined its image during the years of Pervez Musharraf’s presidency. Over the last four years Pakistan has had a spell of relative economic stability, an easing of the electricity crisis and a drop in terror attacks. But now that Mr. Sharif is gone, it is not clear how the military will deal with any resultant political instability or executive frailty. 
 
The Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz has quickly named Shahbaz Sharif, the former Prime Minister’s brother and the Chief Minister of Punjab, as his successor to ensure a smooth transition as well as to stop its rivals from gaining from a prolonged crisis. But the younger Sharif, who had a run-in with the military last year, has big shoes to fill at a challenging time. With Pakistan going to the polls next year and the opposition, mainly Mr. Khan’s PTI which is in effect the king’s party, trying to turn corruption into a galvanising electoral issue, Shahbaz Sharif will take charge while the country is virtually in campaign mode. All this is happening at a time when Pakistan is coming under increased pressure from the United States to act against militants, and while border tensions with India and Afghanistan continue to remain high. Even with his brother’s backroom support, Shahbaz Sharif will have his plate full.
 
 
 
 
 
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