A pall of uncertainty grips Pakistan as its besieged prime minister Nawaz Sharif decides to stave off multi-dimensional challenges that confronts his government in the aftermath of a corruption investigation that finds the prime minister guilty on all counts. Markets lost more than 2000 points in a single day after the report before recovering modestly in following two days.
Business tycoon Sharif, who has his business interests spread in many parts of the Gulf and Europe, denies corruption charges but a high-level probe found out that he owned four high-end luxury apartments in Park Lane London. The Supreme Court ordered the inquiry after the Panama papers unearthed four off-shore companies run by his sons.
The report’s findings appear to have established credibility in Pakistani public who always saw Sharifs living beyond their means despite the fact that the Joint Investigative Team (JIT) included two brigadiers from military intelligence agencies. Sharif supporters infer that the army is out to get Sharif in the name of corruption as lately civil-military relations have been thorny on policy differences on relations with India. The assertion, regardless of its merits, comes too late as prime minister at the moment has appeared to have lost the initiative. For his detractors and opposition parties the defence and its disclosures are coming too late in the day. They point out that Sharifs should have come clean in front of the public and the world when the JIT was constituted and not when they have issued their report.
However, like his previous two-terms that ended with Sharif’s ouster by the military, he is posturing for the confrontation and defiance when the jury is out and final decision by the Supreme Court is days away. Sharif knows that the JIT report couldn’t have come at a wrong time. The contents of the report are damning and its timing lethal. In eight months time the assemblies time are due to retire and the power projects that his government started are nowhere in sight. This is vital for his next election campaign because the last election was contested on the promises that energy shortfall would be over in their tenure. However, after four years the situation stays more or less the same and the general public is more frustrated than ever.
Politically too, Nawaz is a lone man today. His core party is unhappy because he failed to pay attention to them and opposition parties are slowly converging on the single point agenda of get Nawaz in this time of fragility. The opposition stalwart is Imran Khan, a charming former cricket captain, who campaigned all these years to indict Sharif on election meddling and now corruption. His MPs, most of them are former Musharraf supporters are not personally loyal to him rather they would make decision on the whims of military GHQ. So all this defiant talk by the prime minister now would become meaningless if Supreme Court decision condemns Nawaz. There does not seem a possibility that the military would bail him out once again on the nod of foreign powers like the US and Saudi Arabia.
Saudis, incensed because Sharif did not clearly aligned himself with them during their confrontation with Iran, are in a no mood to pluck away Nawaz from the clutches of military. The saner elements within the party are asking Nawaz to dissolve the assemblies now and go for the political mandate from public. If he performs well, there is a possibility of avoiding a humiliating exit. In this scenario he would get to choose someone from his party to be prime minister for six months and then call the elections. This is the only safe option.
But looking back the possibility of appointing someone else to warm the seat of the prime minister looks so un-Nawaz. He confronted exactly the same situation in 1993 and 1999 but he brought the whole system down while falling. This option this time could prove fatal for Nawaz and his party.
Internationally, Nawaz looks isolated. He failed to defend himself against the corruption allegations and President Trump does not particularly like the guy as witnessed at Saudi-US summit in Riyadh lately. The only international friend Nawaz left with is Prime Minister Modi. But the problem is an Indian Prime Minister favouring someone in Pakistan could spell the doomsday rather than any help. His good relations with Modi are one of the charges the military has against him.
Taking the public route and calling the election may or may not be helpful for Nawaz as he would be devoid of support from the overwhelmingly military-controlled media. Hard choices indeed.