Is the mighty house of Sharif fighting for its life?
Pakistan’s former prime minister is embroiled in a graft case that could see him sent to prison, but he defiantly insists he will win next year’s national election
The house of Sharif, one of Pakistan’s two great political dynasties, is looking more and more like a house of cards. Yet against all odds, deposed prime minister Nawaz Sharif seems determined to keep it standing.
In the latest chapter of the saga surrounding him, a Pakistani court postponed his indictment in a graft case for a week after his children, who are co-defendants, did not appear.
His lawyer said Sharif’s children are in London with their ailing mother who is undergoing treatment for throat cancer.
The graft case ordered by the Supreme Court followed an investigation into documents indicating that the family had undisclosed assets.
For much of the past three decades, the billionaire industrial clan has controlled Pakistan’s wealthiest and most influential region, Punjab province. Sharif, 67, has been elected prime minister three times and remains one of the country’s most popular politicians.
But time and again, he and his family have fallen foul of the military, which is suspicious of his desire to reach out to India and his attempts to establish civilian supremacy.
In 1999, he was ousted by the army and sent into exile. Elected again in 2013, he was removed from power by the Supreme Court in July due to the graft case, which could lead to his imprisonment.
At the same time, he is defiantly vowing to lead his party to victory in next year’s election.
“I will continue to fight this case,” Sharif said at a news conference after briefly appearing at the National Accountability Court.
Declaring that Pakistan’s “constitution and democracy” are at stake, he said, “I believe that God and the people of Pakistan are with me, and I still hope that justice is alive somewhere.”
The stunning about-face came as Sharif’s family and its once-formidable political machine, the Pakistan Muslim League-N, appeared to be falling apart amid a cascade of political and legal challenges after the July 28 high court ruling that permanently barred Sharif from parliamentary office for being “dishonest” with the public.
Sharif won praise from some quarters for bowing to the law and returning home from London for the court appearance, essentially issuing a challenge to the military.
At the same time, rumours have flooded Pakistani news and political circles that Sharif has been trying to make a deal with the military establishment to avoid prison. Any agreement would also have to include the judiciary, which has been pursuing the Sharifs relentlessly for months.
Sharif seems remarkably upbeat, given the circumstances.
Yet the tense political drama of the past several months has caused increasingly deep rifts within Sharif’s family and party as their legal and political woes accumulate. The disputes first erupted over who would be named to replace Sharif in Parliament and as the next candidate for prime minister.
His younger brother Shahbaz, 66, always portrayed as a party workhorse and wise consigliere, reportedly was humiliated when Nawaz passed him over twice, first by replacing him as premier and then having his wife, Kulsoom, run in absentia for his legislative seat.
Shahbaz, the chief minister of Punjab, fled his post and fumed silently in London.
On the other side of the clan divide is Sharif’s daughter Maryam Nawaz, 43, a controversial figure who has emerged as his chief defender and heiress apparent.
Maryam Nawaz is also in serious legal trouble, along with her husband and two brothers. Her role in several offshore family properties, including charges of doctoring papers, was a centrepiece of the Supreme Court case.
“The Muslim League needs deep reflection, but princes and princesses are not capable of reflection. This is the curse of genetic transfers of political capital,” commentator Mosharraf Zaidi wrote this week in the News International newspaper. “The Sharif clan seems destined to be the protagonists of a cautionary tale of too much power over too long a period.”
Additional reporting by Associated Press