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Paul McLoughlin

Pakistan stumbles on as another leader is felled

Sharif supporters have so far stood by the deposed PM [Anadolu]

Date of publication: 28 July, 2017

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Pakistan's Nawaz Sharif was deposed for a third time as prime minister on Friday. What does the future hold for a country ensnared with political instability?
Once again Pakistan stands at a crossroads, after one of the few consistent trends in the country's troubled political history was reenacted yet again, and another leader was felled.

Nawaz Sharif was a prime minister dogged by allegations of corruption. He was disqualified from office on Friday after the Pakistani Supreme Court ruled he was no longer eligible "to be an honest member of the parliament".

He was less than a year away from being named the first leader in Pakistan's 70-year history to survive a full five years in office. All of the country's other leaders have been deposed by political in-fighting, corruption charges, military coups or were victims of assassins' bullets.

Sharif has made history for the more altogether dubious reason of being the first prime minister to be toppled more than twice.

It was an unceremonial end to Sharif's latest tenure as prime minister, although some have not ruled out a return of the political titan with a remarkable knack for survival.

"Nawaz Sharif has a history of surprising the nation, so we will have to wait and see," Itrat Jafri, a senior beat reporter for the prime minister at Urdu-language newspaper Nawaiwaqt, told The New Arab.

"Sharif could adopt a harsh line and choose a hard-liner and critic of the establishment to replace him in the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N)."

Panama leaks

Sharif's downfall had been brewing for some time. The leak of the so-called Panama Papers implicated his children - Maryam, Hasan and Hussain - in the allegedly shady sale of an upscale London property through offshore bank accounts.

Sharif was ruled to be "dishonest" by the court when more details were revealed - and thus declared unfit for office. 

This will likely prove to be an end to the veteran politician's career. If corruption charges are enacted against his children it could also be the deathknell for the Sharif dynasty in political life. On the other hand, it might not.

"His family is now in real trouble, but if his Pakistani Muslim League (PML-N) Party can stay undivided then he can survive," said Jafri.

Some have portrayed Pakistan's perceived instability as a facade for a complex power matrix in which many lofty elements vie for control. 

The military has been at constant loggerheads with the civilian government, while political drama serves as a coping mechanism keeping rival powers in check.

Leaks have been part of the process of character assassination, but few have clean hands, says Usman A Khan Tahir, a Lahore-based journalist and assistant news editor at Pakistan Today.

"The verdict has sent shockwaves across the political landscape. If the Supreme Court were to apply this across the board, then we might have a bunch of disqualifications from other parties as well," he said.

"Just like how the ruling party is shell-shocked right now, the ones who are celebrating might be mourning in the future. But the N in PML-N means Nawaz, after all, so it is a huge blow for them."

Cricket and corruption

One who might benefit from the turmoil is the former cricketer turned anti-corruption campaigner Imran Khan who heads the Pakistan Tahreek-i-Insaaf Party (PTI).

He has won huge support among Pakistanis tired of endemic corruption and likewise won plaudits for ultimately convincing the Supreme Court to form a committee to investigate Sharif.

"The biggest winner today is the judiciary, after that the Imran Khan-led PTI. They can boast they were the ones who consistently confronted the ruling PML-N with the Panama leaks," said Tahir.

"The ousting of Sharif has strengthened PTI as a political party, however, it remains to be seen if they can capitalise on this in the next election."

The PTI could run into difficulty in the populous Punjab region where the PML-N's popularity runs strong, an area Tahir refers to as the "ultimate battleground" in Pakistani politics.

Yet the danger of disunity in the ranks of Sharif's party remain potent.

"It will be very difficult for the party to find a person who could keep the party united and go into the next election. A fragmentation of the PML-N is something that cannot be ruled out at the moment," said Tahir.

"If a disintegration of the PML-N ranks happens or some of their leaders join the PTI, Imran Khan's party stand to gain a lot."

For now, the PML-N will likely reshape in an anticipation of the coming political storm. It won't be an easy sail for the party but like the nation it has shown remarkable resiliance at weathering the worst. 

Follow Paul McLoughlin on Twitter: @PaullMcloughlin

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