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Supporters of former Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif
Image: Getty Images/AFP/A. Hassan

A 'referendum' against army's role in politics

Shamil Shams
September 18, 2017

Ousted Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif's wife, Kulsoom, has won a key by-election dubbed a "referendum" on the former premier's corruption disqualification. Experts say the vote was a blow to the powerful military.


It was no routine by-election in Lahore, Pakistan's politically most powerful city and capital of the Punjab province.

Opposition parties, including Imran Khan's Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), and the ruling Muslim League Nawaz group (PML-N), had dubbed it the "referendum" on ousted premier Nawaz Sharif's popularity, in the wake of his disqualification by the Supreme Court in July.

Losing the National Assembly (lower house of parliament) seat to Khan's candidate, Yasmin Rashid, would have been a "political death" for Sharif and an endorsement of his opponents' claims that the voters in Sharif's political stronghold had backed the apex court's decision.

None of that happened on Sunday. According to unofficial results, Sharif's wife, Kulsoom, secured 61,254 votes, whereas the PTI candidate got 47,066 votes.

There was a significant drop in the voter turn out and in votes for Kulsoom, but Sharif's supporters and the country's civil society groups say because of the fact that the country's powerful army had allegedly put its weight behind Khan's party, and that there was a strong media campaign against the Sharif family, the end result was nothing but a historic victory for the beleaguered former prime minister.

Kulsoom Nawaz Maryam Nawaz Sharif 2013
Maryam Nawaz (right) spearheaded the election campaign in Lahore in the absence of her mother Kulsoom (left)Image: Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images

"There is enough evidence that Pakistan's military supported the PTI throughout the election campaign. Many Sharif supporters in Lahore told me that the soldiers that were deployed to maintain security stopped them from casting their ballot. Also, there are reports that activists belonging to Sharif's party were picked up by military intelligence agencies. Still, Sharif's wife won the election," Arif Jamal, a US-based expert on Islamism and Pakistani politics, told DW.

Jamal said the Sunday vote was significant because it proved that Sharif remained a popular politician in Pakistan despite his dismissal from the premiership on corruption charges.

But Khan said the election result showed that Sharif's popularity had decreased.

On Monday, Khan thanked party activists "who worked tirelessly in the election campaign," in a Twitter message. "Applaud courage and determination with which Dr. Yasmin Rashid fought NA-120 election against federal, provincial and local government backed PML-N with their massive funds."

Panama Papers

In April last year, Sharif found himself in a precarious position following the "revelations" made by the famed Panama Papers. Leaked documents showed that three of Sharif's children had links with offshore companies that owned properties in London. Sharif denies any wrongdoing.

In a historic ruling on July 28, a five-judge Supreme Court panel found Sharif guilty of not declaring his financial assets, although not directly in connection with the Panama Papers controversy. The corruption cases have been referred to an accountability court and Sharif has been barred from holding public office for an indefinite period of time.

Read more: Imran Khan: Nawaz Sharif's ouster 'strengthens Pakistani democracy'

After Sharif's ouster, Pakistan's National Assembly elected the former PM's aide Shahid Khaqan Abbasi as interim prime minister on August 1.

The Sunday vote was viewed as a test for PML-N ahead of elections scheduled for next year.

People's 'verdict against judiciary'

"Not only have NA-120 [Lahore constituency] voters rejected the Supreme Court's decision [disqualifying Nawaz Sharif], but also rejected the court's spokesmen," Sharif's daughter Maryam said after provisional results showed her party's victory, alluding to Imran Khan as the apex court's "unofficial mouthpiece."

"Voters have given a decision on a decision, which is that our prime minister is still Nawaz Sharif," added Maryam, who spearheaded the election campaign in the absence of her mother Kulsoom, who is currently undergoing cancer treatment in the UK. It is unclear whether Kulsoom could be elevated to the post of prime minister until the 2018 general election.

Despite the hype around the Panama leaks scandal, some analysts say that former PM Sharif was "victimized" by the country's powerful military establishment, which is allegedly backing the opposition parties. The army leadership is very skeptical of Sharif due to his repeated attempts to improve ties with India and enhance trade between the two South Asian nuclear-armed archrivals. Also, a strong civilian government has always been a threat to the military's unchecked power.

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Michael Kugelman of the Wilson Center in Washington noted there was a "pretty strong precedent of the Pakistani judiciary being very active and essentially sending elected officials packing." The expert also said the Panama Papers case was "more about his family" than Sharif himself.

"You have to acknowledge the fact that Nawaz Sharif himself is not really being accused of anything that is against the law," Kugelman said prior to the July verdict.

Sharif's supporters say that corruption scandals involving politicians are not a new occurrence in Pakistan. Former President Asif Ali Zardari has been accused of massive corruption, and there are already court cases against him. There are graft allegations against the military generals as well, but hardly anyone from the army has ever been tried.

Read more: Panama Papers: Pakistani PM's aide calls for international support

"The Panama Leaks scandal in Pakistan is more a political issue than legal. There have been bigger corruption scandals in the country; none attracted that much attention," Ali K. Chishti, a Karachi-based security and defense analyst, told DW.

Asma Jahangir, a prominent lawyer and rights activist in Pakistan, told DW the Panama Papers case was never about accountability.

"The question of accountability, in my opinion, should be that when Nawaz Sharif was close to the military establishment, why were the courts so lenient with him? Now when Sharif is no longer close to that establishment, they are acting against him. This is my concern: how has the judiciary become so independent all of a sudden? Maybe it is not a relevant question, but it is something that people will be asking," Jahangir told DW.

Candidate with terror links contests ousted PM Sharif's seat in parliament

Mainstreaming jihadis

The Lahore by-election saw the liberal Pakistan People's Party, once headed by former PM Benazir Bhutto, come fourth. The third spot, unexpectedly, went to the newly-formed Milli Muslim League (MML), which has alleged terror links.

Muhammad Yaqub Sheikh won four percent of the vote for the MML, which is backed by the Jamaat-ut-Dawa (JuD) organization. Hafiz Saeed, the founder of JuD, is a US designated terrorist with a $10 million (€8.4 million) bounty on his head. JuD is considered by the United States to be a front for the Lashkhar-e-Taiba militant group accused carrying out the 2008 terrorist attacks on the Indian city of Mumbai.

Lashkhar-e-Taiba leads militant attacks on Indian controlled Kashmir and is officially banned in Pakistan, although Indian and western intelligence believe it is permitted by Pakistan's ISI intelligence service.

"It was for the first time that an international terrorist organization took part in elections and plans to contest the 2018 general elections. By going into an alliance with other political parties, the MML could win many seats in parliament next year," Jamal said.

"It is part of the Pakistani military's plan to push jihadi organizations into mainstream politics. By doing so, the military aims to weaken secular political forces and tighten its grip on the state," Jamal added.

Politics in Pakistan have taken an interesting turn as for the first time the Punjab province, a stronghold of the Sharifs, the military as well as many jihadist organizations, becomes the center stage for the power battle. While the military generals want to constraint Sharif and his party and minimize their role in the country's politics, the former premier is not ready to give up. In the latest round of this tug-of-war, Sharif has emerged victorious. But experts say the fight for civilian supremacy in Pakistan is far from over.