It’s not a good time to be Nawaz Sharif. Being at loggerheads with a military establishment that is seen as doing more than the government in guaranteeing internal security is not ideal. Then there is the Panama Papers investigation, which has named Sharif’s immediate family members as beneficiaries of illegal offshore holdings, and an emboldened opposition continues to press for his resignation on moral grounds. In short, the prime minister is in trouble.
On the other hand, the Pakistan Army’s ongoing efforts to curb militancy, under the leadership of Chief of Army Staff (COAS) General Raheel Sharif, have been appreciated, despite the recent Lahore attack. Controversy surrounding the institution notwithstanding, General Sharif is seen as a strong and reliable leader who has returned safety and sanity to the terror-ridden masses and emphasized the dangerous nexus between corruption and terrorism in the aftermath of the Panama Papers. This statement by the COAS is significant in a country like Pakistan, where the civilian-mil balance is heavily tilted in the military’s favor. The disclosures have also galvanized Sharif’s prime opposition—Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaaf (PTI). PTI, long accused of being close to the military establishment, is suddenly championing the cause of anti-corruption protests in Lahore and Islamabad.
Yet, much of Nawaz Sharif and the PML-N’s precarious situation stems from the prime minister’s own flawed policies. The PML-N’s economic development policy since it came to power has focused on the corporate community and has disregarded other aspects such as good governance. In terms of security, the PML-N was behind a controversial dialogue process with Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) in January 2014, which PTI’s Imran Khan supported. Prime Minister Sharif’s faulty approach was exposed in June 2014 when the TTP carried out a heinous attack on the Jinnah International Airport (JIA) in Karachi.
In contrast, the gains from Operation Zarb-E-Azb— belatedly initiated post the JIA attack, after years of refusing to combat militancy— have helped improve the Pakistan Army’s standing domestically. In the aftermath of the Army Public School attack in Peshawar in December 2014, they immediately launched retaliatory strikes. The swift initiation of Operation Punjab after the recent attack in Lahore was under General Sharif’s stewardship as was the presence of Rangers restoring peace in the restive port city of Karachi, which was previously engulfed in political violence. Even on the foreign policy front, the military raised the issue of alleged Indian spy Kulbhushan Yadav with Iran, as well as pushed Afghanistan to do more to curb militancy. This aggressive approach and success achieved by the military appear to have weakened the standing of the civilian government.
Meanwhile, the Panama Paper’s controversy has strengthened PML-N’s opposition. The pressure on Sharif to conduct impartial investigations has subsequently mounted, given that his party initially tinkered with the idea of having retired judges as investigators— a move that was met with a wistful response from the opposition. Sharif eventually decided to write a letter to the Chief Justice of Pakistan requesting a probe into the matter. Still, this has failed to distract from the fact that officials from his party initially claimed the leaks were a conspiracy being hatched to detract attention from the PML-N’s goal of economic prosperity in Pakistan.
Conspiracies aside, what the Panama Papers do show is that the army chief’s lack of tolerance for corruption and the PML-N’s dismal performance should be treated as a wakeup call by the civilian government to rid itself of corrupt elements. The fact that multiple army officers were dismissed by the COAS sets an important precedent in Pakistan, given the timing and relevance of such a move. It is high time that the PML-N follows suit— being a democratically elected party that is accountable to the people who brought it to power. In the long run, that will be good for democracy, accountability, and for Pakistan at large.
Image: Rizwan Tabassum-AFP, Getty