With Sharif’s Ouster, Pakistan Takes a Step Backward

Unlike most countries in South Asia, the Islamic republic won’t allow democracy to take root.

 
 

Nawaz Sharif has resigned after the Supreme Court disqualified him from office.
Nawaz Sharif has resigned after the Supreme Court disqualified him from office. PHOTO: SEAN GALLUP/GETTY IMAGES
 

As Pakistan approaches the 70th anniversary of its founding next month, it just presented the world with an oddly familiar sight: a civilian prime minister dismissed before the end of his term.

On Friday, the Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from his position for not meeting the constitutional requirement of being sadiq and ameen, Islamic terms that roughly translate as “truthful” and “trustworthy.” Mr. Sharif has announced that his younger brother, Punjab province Chief Minister Shehbaz Sharif, will be his successor.

For Nawaz Sharif’s many foes, including those in the all-powerful army and its historical ally, the judiciary, the dismissal represents the triumph of rule of law over corruption in public life.

 
 

Last year, the so-called Panama papers—leaked documents that focused on a shadowy law firm that provides financial services to some of the world’s ultrawealthy—revealed that three of Mr. Sharif’s children owned offshore assets that the prime minister hadn’t disclosed on a wealth statement. These included apartments in London’s upmarket Mayfair area.

Mr. Sharif hasn’t been convicted of corruption. The immediate grounds for his dismissal lie in not reporting income he allegedly received from a family firm in the United Arab Emirates. But in popular perception his dismissal is linked to the alleged corruption suggested by the Panama revelations. Mr. Sharif and his family strongly deny all such charges.

Despite being cloaked in the rule of law, Mr. Sharif’s disqualification marks a setback for Pakistan’s shaky democracy. A tweet by the country’s former ambassador to the U.S., Husain Haqqani, summed up the problem: “Pakistan stays faithful to its 70-year tradition: No PM ever removed by voters; only by judges, generals, bureaucrats or assassins.”

The Supreme Court’s order represents an aspect of Pakistan that sets it apart from most of its South Asian peers. Pakistani elites appear unwilling to put up with flawed leaders as the cost of democracy. Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka have also had their share of less-than-perfect leaders. Unlike Pakistan, they have all allowed voters to punish poor rulers by turfing them out, and to reward relatively good ones with re-election.

The exit of Mr. Sharif, elected (and dismissed) three times since 1990, also signals a setback for the long-term U.S. goal of encouraging civilian supremacy over the military. No other Pakistani politician has the heft to claw back power over national security and foreign policy from unelected generals who traditionally call the shots.

As long as the army dominates Pakistan, claiming a large chunk of the national budget and ensuring lavish lifestyles for its officers, the country will remain unable to make the investments in health and education it needs to catch up with its peers in Asia. Without civilian oversight, the army’s deeply ingrained hostility toward India, suspicion of the U.S., fealty toward China and support for terrorist proxies in Afghanistan and India are unlikely to end.

Mr. Sharif’s well-publicized desire to normalize relations with India placed him at odds with the army. Those celebrating his exit most gleefully include the former military dictator Pervez Musharraf (1999-2008) and the cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan, who is widely regarded as a potential prime minister more palatable to the generals in Rawalpindi. Many analysts expect Mr. Khan to be the primary beneficiary of the Sharif family’s troubles in elections due next year.

Historical patterns notwithstanding, this was not how things were meant to turn out in Pakistan. Mr. Sharif’s election four years ago marked a hopeful turn for the country’s democracy. Thanks in large part to a strong showing in Punjab, the country’s most populous province, the Sharifs’ right-of-center Pakistan Muslim League comfortably ousted the left-of-center Pakistan Peoples Party, which is closely associated with the family of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto.

With the business-friendly Mr. Sharif in power for the third time, and his brother in charge of Punjab, it looked like the civilian government in Islamabad stood a reasonable chance of wresting authority from the generals in nearby Rawalpindi.

Four years later those hopes lie in tatters. Though the army hasn’t formally seized power, its fingerprints are all over Mr. Sharif’s disqualification. Of the six-member team set up after the Panama scandal broke, two investigators were army officers nominated by military intelligence agencies. Both the speed of the inquiry and the judiciary’s willingness to evict an elected prime minister on what amounts to a technicality suggest at least a green light from the army.

Even if the army didn’t orchestrate Mr. Sharif’s ouster, it will be the major beneficiary. The prime minister’s departure sends a clear signal to politicians that they wrestle with the men in khaki at their own peril. With no domestic pressure on the generals to reform, Pakistan will remain what the Singaporean scholar Tan Tai Yong calls a garrison state dominated by the army. For the nuclear-armed Islamic republic’s 190 million people, dreams of a stable democracy will have to wait.

Mr. Dhume is a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a columnist for WSJ.com.

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