Nawaz Sharif has gone. But Pakistan’s high-level corruption survives

Since Pakistan’s foundation in 1947, not one prime minister has served his or her full term. Things like assassinations and military takeovers happen. Today it was money rather than force that did for Nawaz Sharif. The Pakistan supreme court surprised itself by voting unanimously to ensure that he was not going to be the exception.
The court declared him guilty of small crimes and misdemeanours linked to offshore accounts in Panama and undeclared monies in the Gulf, triggering his immediate resignation. Is the Sharif family’s power, which has dominated rightwing politics in the country for so many decades, finally coming to an end? And if so, who will fill the vacuum?

In a cricket-obsessed country where the leader of the main opposition is Imran Khan, the metaphors came fast and furious – Pakistanis have always been good at self-derision: “This is just the 20-20 opener. We’re waiting for the Test Match (general election)” … “The supreme court is the third umpire. Decision is final” … “The Sharifs have been fixing matches for ever”. The mood is one of cynicism: Sharif has looted the country long enough; other parties deserve a chance.

Sharif’s party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, is fighting back, accusing the court of a vendetta – which usually means that his billions could not buy a single judge. This is truly exceptional. Life in Pakistan has not been morally salutary for any of its citizens. The family politics represented by the Bhutto-Zardaris and their rivals, the Sharifs, is swathed in corruption. Each has learned from the other how best to conceal it, minimising paperwork and juggling accounts. Many years ago, when Benazir Bhutto was prime minister, she asked me what people were saying about her. “They’re saying your husband is totally corrupt, but are not sure about how much you know …”

She knew all right, and was not in the least embarrassed: “You’re so prudish. Times have changed. This is the world we live in. They’re all doing it. Politicians in every western country …” Her husband, the president-to-be Asif Ali Zardari, was imprisoned by Sharif, but no actual proof of corruption was discovered: Zardari’s loyalty to his cronies was legendary, and they remained loyal in return. Sharif, it appears, has been less fortunate.
Many are suggesting that the not-so-invisible hand of the army ensured the unanimous verdict of the supreme court. Did force actually trump money? This notion was given a boost when the current interior minister, Chaudhry Nisar, calmly informed the press that the country faced four serious threats, known only to four key players – including himself, of course. The other members of this quartet were uniformed, and therefore unnamed.

The other problem confronting the country is the endemic violence against minorities, women and the poor
What of the threats? The US (as always) is supposedly angry about Pakistan’s closeness to China. Sharif’s servility to the Saudi monarchy is vexing Iran. Then there is Sharif’s continuing obsession with wooing India, despite the revanchist Modi government in New Delhi. Add to this the heavy US pressure to end all support for anti-Nato outfits in Afghanistan, and threats to target drone strikes at Pakistan proper, not just the tribal badlands bordering the war zones. So runs the semi-official interpretation. Sharif was an obstacle and had to be removed.

There is little doubt that political corruption has acquired colossal proportions in Pakistan – but it’s the same in other south Asian states, even China. Attempts by military dictators to harpoon this whale fail because they refuse to acknowledge the scale of corruption in the armed forces’ top layers. The other problem confronting the country is the endemic violence (apart from the jihadist variety) against minorities, women and the poor. Pakistan’s social fabric is damaged beyond repair.

Sharif was brought down on a technicality, but he is out. Sharif was felled by a constitutional clause inserted by his one-time patron, the late dictator General Zia-ul-Haq, stipulating that every MP must be “honest and sincere”. Were this applied, the National Assembly would probably be permanently empty.

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