Why Could Pakistan Punish Sharif But Not Musharraf?

07/29/2017 04:37 pm ET Updated Jul 29, 2017

Whether you describe Nawaz Sharif as Pakistan’s luckiest politician or the most unfortunate, you are correct in believing either way. While he is indeed the luckiest politician in his country because of being the only leader who has been elected three times as the prime minister of the only Muslim state with nuclear powers, he is equally unfortunate because he has not completed any of his three terms. He has either been forced to step down by the country’s president, the army chief or compelled to resign on corruption charges.

Last week, when the Pakistani Supreme Court disqualified Sharif in a unanimous judgment, he had to leave office months before next year’s general elections. Some view Sharif’s ouster as a dark day for Pakistan’s democracy because it reinforces the victimhood narrative among politicians that democracy or democratic leaders are intentionally interrupted again and again. In Pakistan, the army is the strongest political player, and it is nearly impossible for any political leader to defy the military and continue to remain in power. When Sharif came back to power in 2013 after being expelled by General Musharraf in 1999, he had learned many lessons. He tried his best not to confront the military. On its part, the army didn’t consider him sufficiently loyal and submissive. Often, he talked of peace with India or his aides leaked reports to the media that embarrassed and infuriated the army. Nonetheless, it would be inaccurate to blame solely the military this time for Sharif’s exit.

One politician who can mainly take credit for Sharif’s ouster is the former cricket captain Imran Khan, who campaigned persistently to highlight Sharif’s "corruption" and force him out of his office. For years, two political parties, Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League and late Benazir Bhutto’s Pakistan People’s Party, have dominated politics in Pakistan. When Khan founded his Pakistan Justice Movement or the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 1996, critics considered it mainly as a one-man band. Nobody would believe that one day Khan would emerge as a national leader and successfully lead a political campaign that could force Pakistan’s most powerful prime minister to step down.

With Sharif’s exit, Khan has established himself as a key national leader. That does not mean he is going to replace Sharif because his party has only 33 seats against Sharif’s PML which has 189 seats in the 342-seat National Assembly. What Khan must be proud of is the fact that he has brought an end to the monopoly of the PML and the PPP in national politics.

Pakistanis debate what is more important between a prime minister being allowed to complete a five-year term or a government that is held accountable for its corruption and bad governance. There is no one answer. The country is divided as some smell revenge politics, a judicial coup or a warning for future politicians.

Sharif’s exit is not going to make a marked difference because his party has now announced that his younger brother, Shahbaz, the chief minister for the largest Punjab province, is going to replace him as the next prime minister. Shahbaz is widely believed to be more qualified and a proactive leader. Just like his elder brother, his influence is also limited only to the Punjab province. But Punjab, with 183 seats in the National Assembly, is so dominant in deciding who the next prime minister would be, that even all three remaining provinces cannot compete with its political influence.

By the way, if Sharif’s brother is replacing him as the next prime minister, how good is that for democracy? Is it not just the beginning of another chapter for dynastical politics? It indeed is. Wait a second, but is Sharif actually disappearing for good? Hell no. Even General Musharraf tried to get rid of him by introducing a constitutional ban on a third term for a prime miniseter, hoping that Sharif would never come back. Unsurprisingly, the government lifted that restriction as soon as the PML, Sharif's party, won the 2013 elections. It shouldn’t be any surprise if the Sharifs win even more seats in next year’s elections. While the Supreme Court has technically and legally disqualified Sharif, he insists that does not reduce his popularity among his voters as he told them: 'My conscience is clear.”

Democracy supporters in Pakistan also point out to the selective justice system that exists there. After all, many ask, why is justice done only to democratically elected politicians and not military leaders, such as the former dictator, General Musharraf? The same courts that disqualified Sharif have been utterly unable to hold Musharraf accountable for suspending the Constitution. During his regime, Musharraf imprisoned hundreds of judges, lawyers and human rights activists. He rigged elections and manipulated democratic institutions. Yet, he got away with justice nor was he ever held accountable for the sources of his income. It is not as if there are no punishments prescribed in the country’s legal books for those who violate the Constitution or sanction human rights abuses. It is simply easier to punish politicians because they all conspire, compete and campaign against each other. On the other hand, army officers, both serving and retired, are supportive and protective of each other’s interests no matter how big or small the scale of their corruption and misuse of official authority is.

It is essential for a functioning democracy that everyone is treated equally, and indiscriminate justice is done to all. Pakistan has an unequal and unfair system that protects some and punishes others. Ironically, General Musharraf posted a video on social media describing Sharif’s disqualification as a ‘historic day’ and suggested legal action against the former prime minister while the retired army chief arrogantly felt no pressure to appear before the courts to face pending charges against him.

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