Political legitimacy will be hard to come by in Pakistan

Storm clouds are gathering around Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's prime minister

Pakistan prime minister Muhammad Nawaz Sharif. Carlo Allegri / REUTERS
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On July 10, an investigation team will submit a report to Pakistan’s supreme court that is widely expected to result, sooner or later this year, in the unseating of prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Bizarre as it may be to write the above sentence about an ongoing trial, such is the nature of Pakistani politics.

In fact, it is so repetitive that experienced Pakistani political analysts, including those with a reputation for objectivity, predicted its outcome as early as April 2016, when leaked documents from Panama law firm Mossack Fonseca uncovered companies owned by Sharif’s children in offshore tax havens, which they had used to buy upmarket property in London.

When Sharif narrowly avoided disqualification from holding public office at the conclusion of the first phase of the trial this April, these analysts took to comparing Sharif to Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor.

His kingdom was confined to the palace premises by the British East India Company and he later died in a Burmese prison.

Since subsequent investigative proceedings in the trial’s second phase kicked off to establish whether the Sharif family channeled proceeds from alleged corruption through offshore companies, predictions have turned into laments, namely: another democratic experiment in Pakistan has failed because the competing arms of the state would not allow it to work.

Since the restoration of democracy in 2008, after eight years of military rule by Gen Pervez Musharraf, the authority of Pakistan’s elected leadership has been steadily eroded.

The military has refused to concede an inch of space and the judiciary is preoccupied with the pursuit of decades-old corruption charges. In turn, the media has whipped up one frenzy after another, never allowing a semblance of stability. So when - and if - Sharif goes, it would be painted as the end of an era of political corruption and hailed as a revolutionary change for the better.

That victory would ring hollow, however, because the narrative against Sharif - and president Asif Ali Zardari before him - has been driven by a noxious hatred that has deeply infected the country’s political culture.

Abusive, rowdy and even murderous behaviour towards political adversaries has become the norm over the past nine years. The only foreseeable outcome is greater polarisation and yet another period of instability for Pakistan, the timing of which could not be worse.

With enormous difficulty and at great cost, Pakistan has largely overcome a decade-long Taliban insurgency, facilitating a resurgence of economic growth over the last two years. The marked improvement in Pakistan’s security environment has boosted domestic consumption and facilitated a game-changing Chinese investment programme.

Undoubtedly, both will be deeply affected by the domestic political instability that will follow Sharif’s widely predicted removal from office.

Likewise, the veritable enmity between the arms of the Pakistani state will undermine its ability to weather a brewing storm in US-Pakistani relations that is centred over its alleged support for the Afghan Taliban.

The launch of US military drone operations this month in the western Pakistani hinterland, beyond pre-existing mutually agreed flight boxes in the federally administered tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan, is an ominous sign of events to come later this year. Relations between Pakistan and perennial foe India are also threatening to descend into yet another conflict over disputed Kashmir.

Against such a backdrop, a deeply polarised polity threatens the solidarity and sovereignty of Pakistan. The existence of such a threat has been acknowledged by both sides of the domestic political divide, but not in a way that raises hopes that a common sense of purpose might prevail.

Sharif’s opponents claim Pakistan would be torn apart if he were to be acquitted by the supreme court, while Sharif’s supporters warn the same would happen if he were to be removed from office. Both argue that such instability would arise from a growing sense of disenfranchisement in Pakistan’s smaller provinces - whereas the political infighting is between competing arms of the state that draw their strength from the dominant province of Punjab.

With the supreme court’s final decision rapidly approaching, some political analysts are warning that the general election scheduled for early 2018 could be delayed to enable the process of accountability to be extended beyond Sharif to other politicians.

In defiant contrast to the political narrative, however, the Pakistani electorate has consistently endorsed the choices it made in the 2013 general election in all the by-polls since held, a trend that clearly indicates Sharif would win another term in office if allowed to participate.

As such, any post-accountability government would have scant claim to political legitimacy, without which it would be in no position to effectively respond to the looming threats on Pakistan’s borders.

Whatever the verdict, therefore, the supreme court’s verdict appears set to push Pakistan even deeper into crisis.

Tom Hussain is a journalist and political analyst in Islamabad.​