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Pakistani PM under fire

Shamil ShamsApril 6, 2016

A military operation in Pakistan's Punjab Province has politically cornered PM Sharif, whereas the Panama Papers' revelations have further damaged his position. Can the PM deal with these new challenges to his rule?

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif arrives at the Chancellery to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel on November 11, 2014 in Berlin, Germany. Sharif is on a two-day official visit to Germany (Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
Image: Getty Images/S. Gallup

Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif finds himself in the midst of a political turmoil yet again. For the past two years, his country's powerful military has been trying to undermine his 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. But the suicide bombing on March 27 in the eastern city of Lahore has compounded Sharif's problems.

The Easter blast, claimed by a Taliban splinter group, killed more than 65 people and wounded hundreds. The generals reacted to the bloodbath by cracking down on extremists in the Punjab Province - PM Sharif's stronghold - without consulting the premier. The army spokesman emphasized that the order was given by the military chief and not by Nawaz Sharif.

The PM had long opposed military intervention in Punjab, as it could be interpreted as his inability to control his own political stronghold. The premier had already surrendered a number of his powers to the generals following massive anti-government rallies in Islamabad in 2014, which many analysts say had the army's backing. For instance, foreign policy and defense matters have come under the military's ambit.

Pakistani people mourn over the death of their relatives outside a hospital following a suicide blast in eastern Pakistan's Lahore on March 27, 2016 (Photo: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/Sajjad)
Following the Lahore attack, the military launched an operation in Punjab without consulting SharifImage: picture alliance/ZUMA Press/Sajjad

But the Pakistani leader is facing yet another political battle. The leaked Panama documents mentioned his family's ownership of offshore companies. Though the PM and his son deny any wrongdoing, there is a huge uproar in Pakistan, with opposition parties demanding his resignation, claiming the premier evaded taxes through these firms. On Tuesday, April 5, Sharif addressed the nation on television and announced that he was forming a judicial commission to investigate the allegations.

Politically sidelined, and with accusations of incompetence and corruption leveled against his administration and family, Sharif now faces one of the toughest challenges of his third tenure as prime minister. Can he confront the military and opposition at the same time?

Sharif cornered

"The army's launching of an independent operation in Punjab is likely to damage Sharif politically," said Omar Hamid, head of Asia Analysis at IHS Country Risk. "Although the PML-N (Sharif's political party) had apparently accepted a form of co-governance with the army over the past year – with the military taking the lead in foreign, defense, security, and regional policy, and the government presiding over economic affairs and development – the military's Punjab operation is likely to upset this balance," Hamid explained.

In fact, the military - whose reputation was severely damaged after the assassination of former al Qaeda chief, Osama bin Laden, in a 2011 US operation inside Pakistan - has gradually been consolidating its power since Sharif took charge in 2013.

Not only has Sharif been discouraged from forming friendly ties with Pakistan's arch-rival, India, the generals have also superseded the South Asian country's legal system by establishing military-run courts following a deadly Taliban attack on a Peshawar school in December 2014.

Waris Husain, a Washington-based Pakistan expert, tells DW there is a widely held belief in Pakistan that whenever civilian actors falter due to incompetence or unwillingness, the military exploits this to expand their authority and control over state matters.

Hamid has a similar take on the issue: "Prior to the current developments, Punjab had been considered the exclusive preserve of the PML-N, with no interference on any issue from the army… This situation is now likely to develop in Punjab as well, further solidifying the perception that the army is the real power-broker in the country, with the PML-N government in a subservient position."

Punished for seeking friendly ties with India?

Some analysts are convinced that the army generals are supporting some Islamist groups and using them to weaken Sharif's government. The main reason behind the army's distrust for Sharif is his desire to improve ties with India and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, they say.

General Raheel Sharif (L) meeting with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif at the Prime Minister House in Islamabad, capital of Pakistan (/PID) pixel
Sharif had 'apparently accepted a form of co-governance with the army over the past year,' says Omar HamidImage: picture alliance/Photoshot

"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," Khalid Hameed Farooqi, a Brussels-based Pakistani analyst and Geo TV journalist, told DW.

Farooqi believes the government is already on the edge and has conceded much of its power to the army.

Despite that, most people don't seem to blame the military for the current situation but rather the civilian government.

The new challenge

As if the military's schemes were not enough, Sharif has found himself in an even more 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 have denied the allegations, but the local media and opposition parties, particularly Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf party, are accusing him of corruption and tax evasion.

Panama Papers Mossack Fonseca
Irrespective of the legal issues, the political repercussions of this scandal could be huge for SharifImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J.F.Frey

"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.