By Aamir Latif
Pakistan's top court last week barred the country’s former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from holding a public office for life -- apparently bringing an end to the 36-year checkered political journey of the three-time premier.
The latest verdict, unanimously announced by a five-member bench led by Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar, is the continuation of a Supreme Court judgment, which disqualified Sharif in the whistleblower Panama papers scandal in July last year.
Sharif, 67, who became the prime minister for the third time following a landslide victory of his right-wing Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) in the 2013 elections, had commenced his political journey as a handpicked minister in a military government, for which his political rivals still condemn him.
He was the choice of the then-military governor of Punjab, the country’s largest and most populous province, Lt. Gen. Ghulam Jilani as the provincial finance minister in 1983.
In the wake of the 1985 elections, which were held on non-party basis by the then-military ruler Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, Sharif became the chief minister of Punjab.
He was once again elected as the chief minister Punjab after 1988 elections amid Zia's death in a military plane crash.
As a staunch critic of the left-wing Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP), which turned out to be the single largest party in the 1988 elections, and Benazir Bhutto became the first ever woman prime minister of Pakistan and the Muslim world, Sharif appeared to be a key opposition leader.
First term as prime minister
Not long after, Sharif took oath as prime minister at the age of 37 after a political alliance -- the Islamic Democratic Alliance -- swept the 1990 elections following the dismissal of Bhutto’s government by the then-President Ghulam Ishaq Khan on corruption charges.
He, however, could serve for just two years as his government was also dismissed in 1992 by the same president on the same charges.
The Supreme Court immediately reinstated Sharif’s government but the chief ministers of the four provinces who aligned themselves with Khan refused to cooperate with him triggering a political turmoil. The political unrest ended with the resignations of the president and the prime minister under an agreement brokered by the then-powerful army chief Gen. Waheed Kakar in 1993.
After the 1993 elections, Sharif served as the opposition leader for the next three years as his PML(N) turned out to be the second largest party after the PPP led by Bhutto. However, Bhutto could not complete her second term as well and was ousted by her own handpicked President Farooq Leghari in November 1996.
The PML(N) brutally swept the 1997 elections with a two-thirds majority and elected Sharif as the prime minister for the second term, which saw rifts between him and Leghari, and Chief Justice Syed Sajjad Ali Shah. At one point, PML(N) workers stormed the Supreme Court where Shah was hearing a case against Sharif.
As the then military establishment remained neutral, Sharif forced Leghari to resign, and also got rid of Shah with the help of judges from the apex court. Reportedly, he forced the then-army chief Gen. Jahangir Karamat to resign and appointed Gen. Pervez Musharraf as the new army chief in 1998.
In May 1998, Sharif signed the order allowing the army to conduct six nuclear tests in the remote mountains of Chaghi district near the Afghan border in response to five atomic tests by arch rival India.
Differences with then-army chief
He soon developed differences with Musharraf, mainly on a three-week long Kargil skirmish with India, which ended with a bloodless military coup in October 1999 ousting Sharif from power and installing Musharraf as the new ruler.
Sharif was arrested and convicted in a plane hijacking case for life in April 2000. He remained in jail for slightly over a year before he went into exile to Saudi Arabia under an agreement brokered by the then-Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdel Aziz in 2001.
He remained in Saudi Arabia for the next seven years and returned from exile in November 2007 vowing to end the “dictatorship of Gen. Musharraf". Sharif, however, was not allowed by Musharraf to contest the 2008 elections but his party appeared as the second largest party in the center after the PPP and the largest party in its powerbase Punjab.
His party swept the 2013 elections, and Sharif became the prime minister for the third term -- the only politician who clinched the office thrice in the country’s 70-year-old history- vowing to revive the country’s tottering economy and eliminate terrorism.
Pakistan saw a considerable decline in terrorism during his third stint however many give the credit for that to the army with which Sharif’s relationship still remained strained.
In April 2016, Washington-based International Consortium of Investigative Journalists highlighted various international business and political personalities, including two sons of Sharif, accusing them of establishing shadow companies for global transactions and money laundering.
The revelation sent shockwaves across the world, including in Pakistan, where opposition parties mainly Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) of former cricketing hero Imran Khan, took to the streets compelling the Supreme Court to take up the issue and finally resulting in Sharif’s disqualification.
The apex court also ordered the filing of three separate corruption cases against Sharif, his two sons, daughter, and son-in-law, which are being heard by an anti-corruption court in capital Islamabad. Sharif’s critics often raise questions over a sharp rise in his assets and business -- mainly steel and sugar -- during his tenure in power but he and his family reject the allegations.
Analysts foresee a variety of challenges awaiting Sharif ahead of the general elections likely to be held in July or August this year.
The first and foremost, according to Sajjad Mir, a Lahore-based political analyst, is to keep the party ranks united as over a dozen parliamentarians have already left the party following the Supreme Court judgment.
“If this impression is established that Sharif’s party cannot win the coming elections due to different reasons then a large number of parliamentarians, especially from southern Punjab may leave him apart from internal party differences. In that case, it will be a hard task for Sharif to keep his party united,” Mir told Anadolu Agency.
Mir added that Sharif’s political future relies on the outcome of three corruption references against him.
“Sharif’s bad days are not over yet. We have to wait for the outcome of corruption cases against him.
“If he is convicted and sent to jail then, in my opinion, there will be a significant public sympathy for him. But it is a matter to be seen that how would he capitalize that wave in his favor in the forthcoming elections,” he added.
Arfi Nizami, another Lahore-based political analyst thinks that the Supreme Court judgment would keep Sharif out of politics only for the time being.”
“He might be out of the picture in coming elections but not for too long or forever. His party is still the country’s largest political entity, and has the ability to turn the table,” Nizami told Anadolu Agency.