- The fallout of the Panama papers, rising civil unrest, security challenges, and the expanding role of the military in civilian affairs have resulted in the most challenging period for Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif since he took office in 2013.
- Sharif is likely to survive the current difficulties due to the weak position of the opposition and the military’s lack of intent to force a change in government. However, additional repercussions from investigations into the Mossack Fonseca leak, the trajectory of civil unrest, Sharif’s ability to overcome political paralysis, and the extent to which the military’s influence deepens will shape the prime minister’s longer-term prospects for survival.
Revelations that three of Sharif’s children are among the more than 200 Pakistanis named in leaked documents from Mossack Fonseca have again put the prime minister in the spotlight for tax evasion and financial wrongdoing, issues that led to the dismissal of his government in 1993 during his first tenure as premier. Allegations of corruption have stoked public frustration at a time when rates of civil unrest are already elevated, following resistance to unpopular economic reforms and protests from pro-Islamist groups. Data from PGI Intelligence shows that between 1 January and 30 April 2016, at least 78 incidents of civil unrest took place in Pakistan compared to 28 in the same four-month period in 2015.
The opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party has called on the premier to resign and asked Sharif to set up an independent judicial commission headed by the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) to investigate his family’s assets. The PTI has threatened a re-run of the street protests it held two years ago over alleged vote rigging in the 2013 election, in the absence of an independent inquiry. The 2014 demonstrations lasted for four months, attracted tens of thousands of people, and caused major cities to virtually shut down. The Pakistan Awami Tehreek party, meanwhile, already staged a protest in Gujranwala, Punjab, on 30 April to denounce the government over the Panama leaks, and has threatened additional demonstrations in Lahore.
Although Sharif has agreed to set up a judicial commission, he has extended the scope of the investigation to include all of the Pakistanis named in the leaked documents, which will considerably slow down the pace of the inquiry. Moreover, the CJP has previously expressed reservations about leading a politically sensitive judicial commission and it is not clear what the remit of such an investigation – should it actually proceed – might be. The lack of clarity suggests that political uncertainty and the accompanying threat of civil unrest will continue.
Amid the growing political crisis, the military has expanded its influence in civilian affairs, weakening the prime minister’s position.
Recent terrorist attacks in major cities such as Lahore and Peshawar have provoked public concern and allowed the military – which is already engaged in operations targeting militants and criminals in tribal areas such as Khyber Agency and North Waziristan, as well as Karachi – to take on a bigger role in domestic security. Following the suicide bombing in Lahore on 27 March, the military launched an offensive in Punjab – Sharif’s home province – on 29 March. Local media widely reported that the army had unilaterally announced the campaign without consulting the provincial government led by the premier’s younger brother Shahbaz Sharif, with army chief General Raheel Sharif initially refusing to involve local police in the security operations. The Sharif brothers have previously been firmly against the army’s presence in Punjab, for fear that it could escalate violence in the province due to retaliatory attacks and lead to a political backlash from their traditional support base of wealthy industrialists and agriculturalists.
The military has also sought a greater role in the economy, especially the implementation of the projects under the USD 46 bn China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). After setting up a force of nearly 15,000 troops responsible for providing security for CPEC projects, predominantly in Balochistan, the army has proposed the formation of a CPEC Authority. The body is meant to oversee CPEC projects and would provide a more formal role for military personnel in this key economic programme. The federal government has thus far resisted the plan, but mounting pressures on Sharif’s administration, which has seen its ability to govern weakened, will present ongoing challenges. The military has also distanced itself from the government over the Panama Papers leak in something of a public relations exercise. A much-publicised anti-corruption campaign saw the army suspend six officers accused of accepting bribes on 21 April.
Despite the problems facing the government, Sharif is likely to survive the current tide of political tensions. There are no indications that the military supports an alternative candidate for prime minister and Pakistan’s opposition parties lack the parliamentary strength to present a credible substitute for Sharif. His Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz still has the most number of seats in the National Assembly, holding 188 of the 342-member house, while the Pakistan People’s Party has 32 seats and the PTI only 28.
However, some key variables could destabilise Sharif’s position in the coming months and need to be monitored. A judicial investigation into the Panama leaks promises to be a slow process, with the government already delaying formally setting up the commission and defining its scope. This ensures that the allegations of corruption and accompanying unrest will continue in the near term. As the inquiry proceeds, it is possible that additional details that are damaging to Sharif could emerge, which would further damage his reputation and fuel wider unrest. Similarly, any apparent efforts by the government to cover up the investigation’s findings will provoke a public backlash.
The momentum behind the campaigns of the PTI and other opposition parties, combined with external drivers of unrest such as power outages during the upcoming summer months or further demonstrations against government economic reforms, could see pressure on the prime minister escalate. Any deterioration in the security situation – resulting from protests or terrorist attacks – will further exacerbate the pressure on the administration.
Although a coup is very unlikely at this juncture, the military could exploit Sharif’s current political weakness to deepen its influence both in domestic security and wider civilian affairs. The extent to which Sharif is able to invigorate governance, which has been disrupted by recent political developments, and manage the military’s intentions, will be key to his long-term political success. Signs that General Raheel Sharif, who has developed a considerable popular following since assuming the position in 2013, plans to backtrack on previous commitments to step down at the end of his three-year term in November 2016 should, however, be seen as an indicator of the military’s broader intentions, something that PGI will continue to monitor in the months ahead.