Australian Outlook

Pakistan’s Soft Coup

07 Aug 2017
By Professor Mohammed Ayoob
Nawaz Sharif / Wikimedia Commons

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was ousted from office on 28 July for the third time, not because he lost an election but because of the intervention of non-parliamentary institutions in the political process.

Sharif was dismissed by the president in 1993 on corruption charges, was overthrown by a military coup in 1999, and has now been forced to quit by judicial order. This latest episode resulted from allegations which emerged from the so-called Panama Papers leak that his family members had illegally amassed wealth and used those assets to buy properties abroad.

In light of those allegations, the Pakistan Supreme Court determined that Sharif was “not honest and reliable enough” to hold office. The court ordered that he swiftly stand trial before an accountability court to determine the validity of the corruption allegations made against him.

While on the face of it that decision seems to uphold the norms of accountability even for the highest in the land, the picture looks much murkier when one scrutinises the decision carefully. First, the criterion applied to remove Sharif from office, namely, that he was “not honest and reliable enough”, is far too broad to be of legal value and could be used to define most, if not all, Pakistani politicians. The second reason why the decision appears suspicious is the selectiveness with which it was applied.

However, the most important critique of the Supreme Court’s decision is that it has the potential to derail Pakistan’s fragile democracy by intervening in the functions of elected institutions. The court’s action reinforces the dangerous precedent that non-elected bodies have the power to remove governments from office even if the latter have the confidence of the national assembly.

In a country such as Pakistan, which has been under direct military rule for half its life, such intervention can send jitters not only among the political class but also among intelligent observers of the political scene. Sharif himself was forced out of office and eventually into exile in Saudi Arabia by the then army chief, General Musharraf, in 1999. In a remarkably double-faced gesture, Musharraf, now in self-imposed exile in the UAE to escape a treason trial, congratulated the Supreme Court for its “brave decision” to oust Sharif from power.

Some observers see that as an indication of how the army top brass views this episode. Sharif has had a rather rocky relationship with the army generals since his return to power in 2011. He never forgot the army’s betrayal of 1999, and the generals didn’t trust him because of his independent streak, especially in matters of foreign policy. The military brass were particularly wary of him because they saw him as being too accommodating towards Pakistan’s regional adversary India, a suspicion reinforced by his personal bonhomie with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Many people in Pakistan and abroad view the Supreme Court’s decision to remove Sharif from office as a joint conspiracy of the court and the military high command. That suspicion is strengthened by the fact that last April when the Supreme Court appointed a joint investigation team (JIT) to examine allegations against Sharif it included representatives of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and of Military Intelligence in the team.

The inclusion of two military members in the six-member JIT immediately raised hackles within Pakistan’s political circles for two reasons. First, the military representatives had no expertise in matters of financial irregularities, unlike other members of the JIT. The second and related reason was the fact that the ISI is seen as the arm of the military that engages in controlling the terrorist groups that owe their origins to its support since the 1990s. It is also seen as the branch of the military that engages in subverting political institutions, threatening political activists and journalists, and in general using muscle power to control dissident elements within the country. The inclusion of the military representatives in the JIT was seen as a sign that the Supreme Court was colluding with the military to remove Sharif from office.

Also throwing suspicion on the impartiality of the judgement was the Supreme Court’s decision to investigate allegations against Sharif at the behest of Imran Khan, the cricketer turned politician who sees himself as the nemesis of the Sharif family. Khan is reported to be close both to elements in the military and to the Taliban in Pakistan. The latter group is based largely in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, which borders Afghanistan and is governed by Khan’s party. Since Khan is seen to benefit most from Sharif’s ouster and since he is supposedly close to the military, it has convinced observers that this affair is a command performance undertaken at the orders of the General Headquarters (GHQ) of the Pakistan military.

How this drama unfolds between now and the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2018 is likely to decide the fate of Pakistan’s fragile democracy. The PML, Sharif’s party, has the numbers in parliament to continue to hold office until the next elections. The big question is whether a combination of military machinations and unruly street demonstrations, which have become the hallmark of Imran Khan’s political tactics, will allow the PML to govern effectively in the run up to the next elections. It cannot be ruled out that if the military high command comes to the conclusion that the PML is likely to be returned to power it may abort the entire process either by direct intervention or through proxies creating mayhem in the country.

Mohammed Ayoob is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of International Relations, Michigan State University, and senior fellow at the Center for Global Policy. He is the editor of the recently-reprinted The Middle East in World Politics, published in association with the Australian Institute of International Affairs. 

This article was originally published on the The Strategist on 4 August 2017. It is republished with permission.