Look, we have no other choice,” Pakistan’s former prime minister Nawaz Sharif said last May. “These games have gone on too long. Something has to change.”
Then he left to be with his wife Kulsoom, who is on life support while receiving treatment for cancer in England. But last week he and his daughter Maryam returned to Pakistan to begin serving the jail sentences imposed on them by a Pakistani court.
Why did he do that? He may never see Kulsoom again, and the Pakistani military would not have tried to get him back if he stayed in exile. The family has plenty of money (including four luxury apartments on Park Lane, one of London’s grandest streets), and he could have enjoyed a comfortable retirement far from Pakistan’s brutal politics.
He went home, and Maryam went with him, to serve jail sentences of ten and seven years respectively, because his party, the Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz (PML-N), could still win the national election on Wednesday. Or at least it could win enough seats to form a coalition government with the other anti-military party, the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP).
The PPP is led by Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the 29-year-old son and grandson of former prime ministers. His mother, Benazir Bhutto, was killed in a terrorist attack that may have been orchestrated by elements in Pakistan’s all-powerful military, and his grandfather, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was hanged by one of Pakistan’s military dictators. He does not love the army.
The PPP will come third in the election, behind both Nawaz Sharif’s party and the pro-military party led by former star international cricket player Imran Khan, because its support is largely confined to the province of Sindh and the rural poor. But if the PML-N and the PPP together win more seats in parliament than Imran Khan’s Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), they might be able to form a coalition government that could face down the army.
Nawaz Sharif cannot run for parliament from jail, but his brother Shahbaz Sharif, currently leading the PML-N, certainly would become prime minister–and Nawaz Sharif’s conviction would probably then be overturned on appeal. To lodge an appeal, however, he must first show up and go to jail, so there he sits (at least for the moment).
He would stand a good chance of winning an appeal if the military didn’t intervene, because the case against him is weak. It is preposterous and shameful that around a thousand rich Pakistani families, most of them in effect semi-feudal land-owners, dominate the politics of a country of nearly 200 million people at both national and local levels, but it is not illegal.
Most of those families keep much of their wealth abroad, and as many as half own an expensive house or apartment in London. Nawaz Sharif’s family used a company in Panama to manage their overseas properties, and all the details were disclosed with the publication of the Panama Papers.
The case against Nawaz Sharif and his children, probably constructed by the military, charged him with owning assets beyond his income. An anti-corruption court that was probably under heavy military pressure removed him from the prime ministership last year and another court then sentenced him to prison. But it’s not a safe conviction.
When a reporter from Pakistan’s biggest TV news channel, Geo, dug up information in March that suggested the grounds on which Nawaz had been removed as prime minister were “extremely weak”, its cable distributors cut it off, almost certainly under military pressure.
In May, the country’s oldest and most influential newspaper, Dawn, published an interview with Nawaz in which he questioned the army’s wisdom in “allowing” Pakistani militants to go to India and kill 150 people in Mumbai in 2008. Dawn’s distribution was immediately suspended across large parts of urban Pakistan that are controlled by the army’s real estate giant, the Defence Housing Authority.
The rest of Pakistan’s media, once lively, are now thoroughly cowed: they did not even report on these events. Some 17,000 activists of the PML-N are facing criminal cases for breaking unspecified election rules. But unless the army directly interferes with the vote-counting – which would certainly trigger mass protests – Nawaz Sharif may still end up back in power.
As Nawaz remarked, “There was a time when we used to say (the army is) a state within a state. Now it’s a state above the state.” This election is really about whether the army keeps that power over civilian politicians, and also holds on to the vast business empire that guarantees its senior officers a prosperous retirement.
To justify its privileged position the army needs a big military threat, so it supports various militant groups to maintain a guerilla war in Afghanistan and a permanent military confrontation with India. Whereas every civilian politician who has gained a firm hold on power has tried to normalise Pakistan’s relationship with India – and several (including Nawaz himself in 1999) have been overthrown by the army for daring to try.
Nothing less is at stake in this election than peace in the Indian subcontinent and Pakistan’s release from the burden of an over-powerful military (which might at last allow it to match India’s high economic growth rate). And it is even possible that the anti-military parties could win.