A Deepening Political Crisis In Pakistan

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is under intense pressure from the political opposition and sections of the media to resign from his position. An investigation team, officially known as the Joint Investigation Team (JIT), found out in the Panama Papers probe that the prime minister and his family had accumulated wealth beyond their known sources of income. Elected with an overwhelming majority in the general elections of 2013, Sharif is the only prime minister to serve Pakistan for a third term. Until the recent political crisis erupted, the media in Pakistan mostly viewed Sharif as an undisputed favorite for next year’s general elections.

Sharif, 67, has refused to resign from his job. His opponents are somewhat divided on what should happen next. The Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), the largest opposition party, wants Sharif to go immediately but cautions his departure must not lead to the derailment of the democratic process. Therefore, it is proposing that the ruling Pakistan Muslim League (PML-Nawaz) should elect a new head of the government.

On the other hand, Imran Khan, the more vocal critic of Sharif, who has been campaigning for years against the current prime minister, is demanding fresh elections. Even folks within the government also understand that they're in deep trouble. “Only a miracle can save you now,” Jang, the leading Urdu newspaper quoted the country’s Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan had told Sharif.

Pakistan’s history is abundantly full of prolonged chapters of political instability, authoritarian military rule and flagrant dismissal of elected governments under various pretexts. So, every time the country comes on the brink of a political crisis like this one, it is normal to hear that the “deep state” (read the army) is plotting a regime change.

Najam Sethi, the editor of the Friday Times, wrote, “there is no doubt that this trial is really about “regime change” and only apparently about “corruption” as so often in the past." He added, "the deep state is aiming to knock him [Sharif] out for good and “save the system” because the stakeholders arrayed against him are more numerous, more united and more powerful.”

On the contrary, another newspaper, Dawn, has urged Sharif to step down after the recent disclosure of his financial assets. Zahid Hussain, a respected columnist for Dawn, wrote on July 12, that Sharif had already lost political and moral authority to run the government and, warned, “any confrontation would not only be disastrous for the government but also for the democratic political process.”

Sharif had started his political career in the 1980s under the patronage of the military and remained in their good books until General Musharraf ousted his second government in 1999. When Sharif returned to Pakistan after several years in exile in Saudi Arabia, he branded himself as a victim of the military’s harsh stance toward him. Experts said Sharif had come back as a mature politician. After the 2013 elections, Sharif emerged only as a cautious leader who did not want to confront the military rather than a political reformer. To save his government from an assault by the army, he took many unpopular decisions that incensed his colleagues. Concessions he offered to the military didn't necessarily earn him the army's support.

Sharif’s third term has probably been his worst. He did not capitalize on his broad mandate to introduce political and economic reforms in Pakistan. He remained weak and ineffective internally on national security. His foreign policy was even a disaster as he took no action against the Pakistan-based Islamist terrorist groups to improve ties with India. Pakistan’s western neighbors, Iran and Afghanistan, have also been upset with Islamabad for its lack of will and action to combat Islamist terrorism. Islamabad's relations with Washington have reached a near collapse. Sharif’s supporters cite the military's strict control on foreign policy as the main reason for his lack of action on that front. Sharif could have used the military's control over key domestic and foreign policies as an opportunity to emerge as a revolutionary leader who could give Pakistan a new vision, and a genuine democratic system. He miserably missed that opportunity.

Sharif's compliant and non-confrontational approach aimed to please the military has still failed to protect him. This time he is falling apparently because of his faults. While it is a commonplace in Pakistan to believe that the United States is behind every regime change in Islamabad, Washington is unlikely to come to Sharif’s rescue because he has not been able to establish himself as an indispensable leader. Even if Sharif is forced to resign, Pakistan's democratic system must not crumble. The country needs a leader who is committed to radical internal reforms and able to improve relations with the United States, India and Pakistan's other neighboring countries that often voice concerns about its lack of action against violent Islamist extremists.

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