Opposition leader Imran Khan has vowed to shut down Islamabad until PM Sharif resigns from his post. Experts say that Khan can capitalize on the rifts between the premier and the country's powerful army.
In his speech on Monday, October 24, opposition leader Imran Khan said Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is "the biggest security threat" to the country, as he continues to mount pressure on the premier on his alleged involvement in corruption scandals.
The cricketer-turned-politician, whose Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice, PTI) party has emerged as a potent political force in the South Asian country, called on his supporters to march towards the capital Islamabad on November 2 and shut down the city until PM Sharif tenders his resignation. Khan suggested that if Sharif didn't step down, the country's army might take advantage of the situation. That is the most interesting dynamic of the present political turmoil in Pakistan, observers say.
For the past two years, his country's powerful military has been trying to undermine Sharif's political authority on the pretext of fighting Islamist extremists. The army supporters say that Sharif's administration has completely failed to rein in militant groups, whereas the military's chief, General Raheel Sharif, has proven himself a more "competent leader" through a "successful" offensive in the northwestern tribal areas.
The civilian-military ties have further deteriorated since the outbreak of violence in India-administered Kashmir and a militant attack on Indian troops last month near the Kashmiri border. The military leadership and opposition parties say that PM Sharif has not been assertive against India and instead seeking to increase trade ties with the country's arch-rival. Sharif has often been accused by the military supporters of being a "friend" of Indian PM Narendra Modi.
Thus, PM Sharif faces a two-pronged threat from Khan and the army, whose head Raheel Sharif's tenure is ending next month. There has been immense pressure on the civilian government to extend General Sharif's contract beyond the November 28 deadline.
Can the prime minister cope with this new challenge? The answer is tricky because when Sharif's opponents, including members of a number of banned Islamic parties, enter Islamabad next week, things could get violent. And what Imran Khan said about a "third power" – which experts say means the Pakistani army – taking advantage of the situation, could prove to be true.
In 2014, Khan was on the verge of toppling Sharif's government on allegations of election rigging. That time, as anti-government protesters took to the streets in Islamabad in huge numbers, the military refused to intervene. But this time, the army may not choose to be "neutral," experts say.
The corruption allegations against the premier are very serious, and it is true that Sharif has generally dodged them so far. The manifesto of Khan's party resonates well with a large section of the Pakistani middle class due to its emphasis on governance issues - particularly corruption and political accountability.
The PM has found himself in a precarious situation following the "revelations" made by the so-called Panama Papers. Leaked documents show that three of the prime minister's children had links with offshore companies that owned properties in London.
Sharif and his family denied the allegations, but the local media and opposition parties, particularly Khan's PTI, are accusing him of corruption and tax evasion.
"Nawaz Sharif should explain how his children made all this money," Khan said.
According to some legal experts, the papers are not necessarily evidence of corruption, as using offshore structures is entirely legal. But irrespective of its legality, the political repercussions of this scandal could be huge for Sharif. Some even say the new challenges could cost him his post.
But corruption scandals involving the politicians are not a new occurrence in the Islamic country. Former President Asif Ali Zardari has been accused of massive corruption, and there are already court cases against him. Sharif, too, can deal with them legally, but the more pressing issue, which opposition leader Khan has also hinted at, is the civilian-military ties.
Army chief's extension
There has been a tug of war between the army and PM Sharif for quite some time. During his second term as prime minister in the early 1990s, Sharif attempted to sack a military chief but instead had to resign himself. In 1999, Sharif replaced then army chief Pervez Musharraf while he was on a trip to Sri Lanka. Thwarting the move, the army commanders launched a coup against Sharif and Musharraf came to power. Sharif faces pretty much the same dilemma now.
Army chief Raheel Sharif's tenure is ending next month, and the general's supporters demand his extension. A military operation in the country's northwestern areas and an increasing tension with India over Kashmir do not allow a change in the military command, the supporters argue.
But critics say that Raheel Sharif is using the terrorism and Kashmir pretext to keep PM Sharif under pressure and continue his job as army chief for another term. The Islamic country's civil society wants PM Sharif to assert his authority and replace General Sharif by the end of the month to strengthen the country's democratic institutions. But the latest events suggest that PM Sharif is already backing down to the army.
Brussels-based Pakistani journalist Khalid Hameed Farooqi, however, says that it is unlikely that PM Sharif would extend General Sharif's term as army chief. "The Sharif administration is aware that the international community is not in favor of the Pakistani army's role in politics. I think he will use this international support to assert his authority over the military," Farooqi told DW.
Punished for seeking friendly ties with India?
Farooqi says the army leadership is very skeptical of Nawaz Sharif due to the premier's repeated attempts to improve ties with India and enhance trade between the two South Asian nuclear-armed archrivals.
"Sharif has understood that liberal economic policies and good relations with neighboring countries is the only way forward for Pakistan. But there are institutions and groups in the country which do not agree with this approach," Farooqi said.
Idrees Ahmed, a political activist in Lahore, says that ongoing war rhetoric between India and Pakistan would only benefit the two countries' armies, defense industries, ultra-nationalists, and religious extremists. He is also of the opinion that India should differentiate between Pakistan's civilian leadership and its military generals.
"Who are the Indian politicians doing a favor to? Certainly not to PM Sharif's civilian government. They are giving a reason to Pakistan's army generals and their stooges - the Islamists - to create an atmosphere of hatred and jingoism in the country," Ahmed told DW.
It will be interesting to see who comes out stronger - the military or the civilian government - in the tussle over supremacy on political affairs. Experts say that by not extending the incumbent army chief's tenure, the prime minister can certainly give a strong message to the military generals that they have to respect his authority. And Sharif needs to announce the name of the new army chief before the start of Khan's protest rallies in Islamabad. Because once the anti-government movement kicks off, it will be very difficult for him to make that decision. And Khan will be there to capitalize on the civilian-military rift.