How Pakistani PM Sharif outmaneuvered opposition leader Khan | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 01.11.2016
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How Pakistani PM Sharif outmaneuvered opposition leader Khan

A judicial commission will decide the fate of Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif, who is facing corruption allegations. Opposition leader Imran Khan has once again failed to bring down the government through street protests.

Supporters of opposition leader Imran Khan are set to hold a demonstration in Islamabad on Wednesday, November 2. Previously, Khan had threatened to shut down the capital and paralyze the state machinery, but after the country's Supreme Court ordered a formal investigation into corruption allegations against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, the politician changed his plans.

Khan's supporters still hope that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who came to power after winning the 2013 parliamentary election, will either tender resignation in the coming weeks due to public pressure or that the South Asian country's top court will disqualify him.

"I am elated that the investigation into Nawaz Sharif's [alleged corruption] will begin the day after tomorrow," Khan told his party activists on Tuesday.

In the midst of political turmoil

Sharif finds himself in a precarious situation. He has tried to assert his authority as an elected prime minister in the past three years, albeit unsuccessfully. In his country, the army generals call the shots; they have a firm grip over defense and security policies, foreign affairs, and internal matters. The PM has not been on good terms with the incumbent army chief Raheel Sharif, whose tenure is ending this month. The army is skeptical of Sharif's friendly overtures towards regional arch-rival India, and the acrimony has increased since anti-New Delhi protests started in parts of India-administered Kashmir. Unlike the opposition leader Khan or other pro-army politicians, Sharif hasn't been as critical of Indian PM Narendra Modi, which a typical Pakistani premier is expected to be.

So when thousands of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (Movement for Justice, PTI) party supporters, led by their leader Imran Khan, hold a smaller-than-planned rally in the capital on Wednesday, things could still get out of control. Pakistani police are notorious for the use of power against protesters. The officials have already arrested hundreds of PTI activists and leaders and clashed with protesters who were trying to enter a barricaded Islamabad. There were also reports of two PTI supporters dying as a result of inhaling tear gas fired by police.

If the judicial probe doesn't satisfy Khan and other anti-Sharif groups, the anti-government protesters might take to the streets soon. And if things get violent, analysts say it would be a perfect pretext for the army to step in. Khan has already suggested that if Sharif didn't step down, the country's army might take advantage of the situation. This presents an interesting dynamic to the present political turmoil in Pakistan.

Corruption scandal

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.

Muhammad Nawaz Sharif speaks at summit meeting for refugee crisis at the UN (picture-alliance/dpa/M.Graff )

The corruption allegations against the premier are very serious

The corruption allegations against the premier are very serious, and it is true that Sharif has generally dodged them so far. The PM has found himself in a difficult 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 tussle between civilian and military structures. 

Pakistani army and India

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.

Pakistan - Oppositionspolitiker Imran Khan in seinem Anwesen in Bani Gala (Reuters/C. Firouz)

Imran Khan is now one of the key players in Pakistani politics

Army chief Raheel Sharif's tenure is ending on November 28, 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, supporters argue.

But army critics say that Raheel Sharif is using the pretext of terrorism and Kashmir to keep PM Sharif under pressure, so that he may 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 as soon as possible to strengthen the country's democratic institutions.

Brussels-based Pakistani journalist Khalid Hameed Farooqi says 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.

Farooqi says the army leadership is also 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 arch-rivals.

"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.

Pakistan Schusswechsel und Explosionen auf Universitätscampus in Charsadda (Reuters/F. Aziz)

Khan agrees with the army's position on Afghanistan and Pakistan's national security, say experts

What Khan wants to achieve

Imran Khan is now one of the key players in Pakistani politics. His party came third in the May 2013 parliamentary elections and now rules the northwestern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province bordering Afghanistan. He wants Islamabad to make peace with the Tehreek-i-Taliban Pakistan (TTP) and sever its alliance with the US in the "war against terror."

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.

"Khan's stance on corruption, terrorism and nepotism in Pakistani politics has struck a chord with the masses, which are fed up with the traditional ruling elite. He has no corruption charges on him, no foreign assets," claims PTI activist in Islamabad, Khawar Sohail.

But some observers argue that Khan is backed by Pakistan's right-wing groups, in particular the military establishment, because of his "soft" stance on the Taliban and other Islamist militants. His rise in Pakistani politics, they claim, is due to his "good relations" with the ISI. Khan agrees with the organization's position on matters such as Afghanistan and Pakistan's national security, they say.

Nepal SAARC Gipfel in Kathmandu 2014 (Getty Images/AFP/N. Shrestha)

Sharif seeks friendly ties with neighboring India

But most people in Pakistan are not bothered about the country's Afghanistan policy or its ties with Washington. They need jobs, security and an end to corruption in governmental departments. For them it is not important whether friendly ties with India would put Pakistan on the path of progress in the coming years; they want change now. That is why Khan has been able to capitalize on public sentiment against "traditional" politicians like the Sharifs and the Bhuttos.

PM Sharif began his political career under the tutelage of the former military dictator Ziaul Haq. But he has outgrown his relationship with the army. Analysts say the military has found a perfect replacement for Sharif in Imran Khan, who is popular and at the same time, has no issues with the generals' policies towards India and Afghanistan.

Khan wants to oust an elected prime minister through street protests. He might have the army's backing to do so, but Sharif, too, is a popular leader, and he also enjoys massive international support. In the coming days, Pakistan will decide which path it will ultimately take – the one with more international isolation with the army assuming more powers, or the one with civilian supremacy and regional cooperation. The Supreme Court has averted the crisis for the time being, but in Pakistan no crisis is permanently over.