In his long political career, Nawaz Sharif was able to bounce back from a military coup, a jail sentence and exile, to win an election and become Prime Minister for the third time. But his conviction on Friday, along with that of his daughter Maryam, his chosen political heir, by an accountability court is a blow from which it is tough, if not impossible, for him to make a political comeback.
The conviction was not unexpected. The writing has been on the wall since the April 2016 Panama Papers expose linking his family to off-shore companies — faint at first, but more clearly after his July 2017 disqualification by the Supreme Court on a related technicality. That ruling was widely perceived as a judicial coup, backed, if not outright orchestrated by the military.
The timing of Friday’s verdict, days before the July 25 election, is bound to affect the PML(N)’s poll prospects, which had already taken a hit in the last few days. At a press conference Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz Sharif, who has headed the party after his brother’s disqualification last year, declared that the people of Pakistan would give the “real verdict” on election day but he looked and spoke like a doomed man.
Nawaz had tried to have the verdict postponed citing his inability to be present in court as he had to be by his cancer-stricken wife’s side in a London hospital. But the court turned down the request.
His 2017 disqualification — earlier this year the court ruled that the disqualification was for life — meant that he was not a candidate in the election. But until a few weeks ago, the PML(N) still considered itself as a strong contender. The aam aadmi saw the government delivering on “development” — power cuts ended, the economy kept its head above the water, and there was massive investment in road networks — while the country’s liberal elites backed Sharif for being anti-military, questioning why, of all the corrupt leaders that Pakistan has had, only he has been singled out.
Before he departed for London, Nawaz was himself addressing public meetings, lashing out at the military and the security establishment for deposing him through the courts because he dared to try Pervez Musharraf, the military chief who ousted him in a coup in 1999, for treason after he became Prime Minister in 2013, and for being passionate about peace with India.
However, the party’s chances seemed to turn uncertain as the accountability court verdict drew close. Several of the party’s sure-shot winners in its south Punjab stronghold refused party tickets at the last minute and decided to contest as independents.
The spate of departures raised suspicions about who was behind them. For a clue on why this may have happened, consider this: as many as 46 independents have been allotted the same symbol, the jeep. That is as subtle as it gets.
A poll by Geo TV, whose results were aired earlier this week, put Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf the lead, though the PML(N) was not far behind. The Pakistan People’s Party is far behind. Twenty per cent of the voters are said to be undecided still. And in case of a hung parliament, the 46 ‘jeepwallahs” could play a decisive role.
Despite several indications that he is backed by the security establishment, Imran Khan has so far led an anaemic election campaign. However, Sharif’s conviction, which he is seen as having pursued with single-minded determination, is likely to see him and his supporters go to town.
Nawaz may still be able to change the narrative of the victimised democratic leader who fell foul of the military for wanting peace with India and speaking out against the flawed regional security policies of the security establishment. But that can happen only if he and his daughter return to Pakistan.
In doing this, he would have to take a calculated risk. Though they still have recourse to two stages of appeal — in the Islamabad High Court and in the Supreme Court — there is the possibility of the court preventing them from leaving the country.
If the PML(N) loses the election, his options would get even more limited. If he decides to stay away, it will be up to brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is seen as more accommodating of the military.