A Win for Pakistan’s Deep State

The ouster of Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif could result in the army playing a more overt role in the country’s politics.

Nawaz Sharif, 67, resigned on Friday after Pakistan’s Supreme Court disqualified him from office. Friday’s verdict followed a lengthy investigation into the Sharif family’s overseas assets.

A five-judge bench of the Supreme Court announced its verdict after it concluded that Sharif had not been “honest” by concealing the true extent of his wealth. Sharif, his two sons and his daughter, Maryam Nawaz Sharif, had been under scrutiny ever since the Panama Papers leak last year.

The verdict has also, for the moment, disqualified Maryam, 43, long seen as her father’s successor.

Sharif’s party, the PML-N, which enjoys a majority in Parliament, is expected to appoint as prime minister his brother Shabaz, who is currently Punjab chief minister. In the meantime, petroleum minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi will hold the post of interim prime minister.

The army strikes back

Three factors point to the growing hand of the Pakistan Army in the aftermath of Sharif’s resignation.

One, Sharif’s efforts at asserting his own authority brought him into frequent confrontation with his generals. The army pushed back against his efforts to reach out to India. In April Sharif fired two of his senior officials after a front-page story in Dawn described a meeting in which civilian leaders had warned the military it needed to act against Islamist militants or risk Pakistan’s diplomatic isolation. The firings did not placate the men in khaki, and an official spokesperson of Pakistan’s armed forces humiliated Sharif’s government on Twitter.

The generals however, appear to prefer Sharif’s younger brother. As South Asia expert Daniel Markey told The Cipher Brief recently, ‘whereas Nawaz Sharif has been seen as problematic by the Pakistani army, Shehbaz Sharif has been more of a darling of the Pakistani military.’

Two, the chief political proponent of Sharif’s ouster has been Imran Khan’s PTI party, which its opponents believe, is backed by the army and intelligence agencies. Pakistani essayist Harris Khalique recently wrote that the PTI appeared to be ‘playing the part of the king’s party, trying to unseat Mr. Sharif by using the Panama Papers’ revelations’.

Three, and perhaps most importantly, Pakistan’s Supreme Court has played an active role in targeting Sharif. The investigative team it assembled to probe into the Sharif family’s finances included one official with ties to the PTI and at least two others from Pakistani intelligence agencies.

While Pakistan’s Supreme Court did help oust the country’s ruler General Pervez Musharraf in 2007, it made peace with his successor, General Ashfaq Kayani. In the past, the courts have legitimized all thee military coups in Pakistan’s history, including Musharraf’s in 1999.

It may be too early to tell how Sharif’s removal will affect India, but any development that strengthens the Pakistan Army’s grip is never good news.

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