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Above: Former Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and daughter Maryam/Photo: UNI

Both the PML (N) and the PPP are in dire straits with the army sharpening its knives. Hope lies in the heir apparents of both parties, Maryam Nawaz and Bilawal Bhutto

By Seema Guha

Accountability courts in Pakistan have been gunning for the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) ever since Nawaz Sharif took a stand against the country’s all-powerful military. But it is not just the PML(N). The Pakistan People’s Party’s Asif Zardari is also facing the heat while fighting his battle in court. Where is all this leading to? Can locking up traditional politicians solve problems of all-pervasive corruption which has seeped into the system? Is it a genuine cleaning-up operation or just a means to get inconvenient people out of the way?

After years of military rule when elected governments could be thrown out, Pakistanis are proud that there has now been a smooth transition with the election of Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). But in reality, nothing has changed. The army may not be ruling directly, but holds all the aces. Imran Khan is the current favourite of the generals, but that could change in case he dares to question the army’s constant interference in civilian affairs. Look where it landed Sharif.

There are a slew of cases against Sharif. On July 6, 2018, Sharif and his daughter and political heir, Maryam, were convicted in the Avenfield property case linked to the ownership of four luxury flats in London. The verdict was a 10-year jail sentence for Sharif and seven for Maryam. Now, in the Al Azizia Steel Mills case, another seven years’ jail term has been added. Besides, Sharif has been debarred from holding any public office for 10 years. That will come into play when he completes the prison term. Effectively, the accountability court has ensured that Sharif is out of politics for the rest of his life. He is already 69. Maryam’s tweets aptly sum up the accountability court’s decision: “Punishment to the same man for the fourth time. [This was] blind revenge’s last hiccup but victory is Nawaz Sharif’s, thank God.”

“After two-and-a-half years of revenge-like accountability, after rummaging through three generations, not a penny’s worth of corruption, kickback or commission was found,” she said in a series of tweets. She said that “all the verdicts against Sharif were regarding the personal business of his dec­eased father (Mian Sharif)”. She added that “when they could not find anything they announced the verdict on assumptions”.

It is not that Sharif is squeaky clean. Allegations of corruption had dogged the Sharif brothers for a long time, much like other South Asian politicians. His trouble began after he wanted to take an independent line from the army, especially regarding normalising ties with India. The army dictates India, Afghanistan and US policies. It is well known that Sharif had been an advocate for peace with India. Coming from a business family, Sharif was keen on fixing relations to allow trade between both countries.

 

Modi’s unscheduled stopover in Lahore in 2015 on his way back from Kabul to greet Sharif on his birthday was frowned on by the army. It did not like the fact that Sharif did not consult it. But all the peace moves came to nothing after the terror strike in Pathankot, India’s frontline air force station. This was followed by a deadly attack on an army camp in Uri. Sharif’s best attempts to nab the terrorists and salvage the peace process came to nothing as the army stood firm. The Panama papers gave the army just what it was looking for. If Sharif had played ball with the army, would the courts have pursued cases against him with the same zeal? One wonders.

For now, the PML(N)’s fortunes are down. Brother Shehbaz Sharif, while an able administrator who has done well as Punjab chief minister, does not have the leadership qualities of Nawaz. He is also facing incarceration. With Nawaz out on a limb, can his party survive?

With the family out of action and the army backing the PTI, there are chances that PML(N) leaders may cross over to the PTI. But the person to watch in future will be Maryam Nawaz. She has the grit and determination to fight on and revive her party. In politics, nothing is certain, and a party which is in the doghouse today may come back with a thumping majority later.

While the PML(N) is in a bad shape, the PPP’s Asif Zardari is also in trouble and fighting National Accountability Bureau (NAB) cases filed before accountability courts. Zardari is alleged to be one of the most corrupt politicians in Pakistan. When Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, he was known as Mr 10 Percent as it was alleged that he got a 10 percent cut on every big deal signed by his wife’s government.

The NAB is now catching up with him. He and his sister, Faryal Talpur, have been placed on the Exit Control List to prevent them from flying abroad after they were named by a Supreme Court-appointed joint investigative team probing fake bank accounts. In another case involving the Park Enclave housing scheme, Zardari and son Bilawal have both been issued notices and questionnaires by the NAB.

The idea is to keep both political parties on their toes, fighting corruption cases that the government is piling on them. Zardari remains an unpopular figure even among many Bhutto loyalists in the PPP and the general public. If he is thrown into jail, not many would be bothered. Bilawal is seen by PPP supporters as the true inheritor of the Bhutto mantle. The future of this party is with Bilawal. Much will depend on how he shapes up independently without his father to guide him. In fact, Zardari’s arrest may be good for the PPP and would allow Bilawal to shape the party as he deems fit. Zardari is a good backroom negotiator. That is what he did all through when he was president—he managed to survive the full term by cutting deals with major players, including the army.

Imran was voted to power by people fed up of corrupt politicians. His promise of a new Pakistan and cleaning up the system won traction among the youth. But, as critics point out, while the NAB goes after political parties, can the government apply the same rules to the army? Corruption within the army is also widespread. Can anyone dare to question the military?

Imran knows well that taking on the interests of the army would mean his downfall. So for now, going after the PML(N) and the PPP and blaming the two traditional parties for the current economic mess in Pakistan is what is sustaining the PTI. But this is not enough. Unless Imran can deliver on jobs and good governance, he will lose the faith of the people. That will be the time for Maryam and Bilawal to make their moves.

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