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Pakistan’s PM is kicked out but expect little to change

Last week the Supreme Court of Pakistan unanimously declared that Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was not “honest” and that therefore he was “disqualified to be a member of Parliament”. Mr Sharif subsequently resigned, promising to use all available legal and constitutional means to challenge the verdict.

This long-awaited decision was the culmination of over a year of investigation into the business affairs of the prime minister and three of his children following disclosures in the Panama Papers. The Sharif family members were unable to provide valid documentation to prove how they had accumulated such vast wealth, including very expensive London apartments, in a legitimate fashion.

Sharif’s departure is unlikely to change much domestically and externally, especially given that he will retain the leadership of his party, the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N).

It’s ironic that Sharif’s disqualification was based on constitutional amendments put in place during President Gen Zia-ul-Haq’s rule (1977-1988) given that Gen Zia was effectively Sharif’s mentor who helped him establish his political credentials in Punjab.

Needless to say, Sharif’s supporters believe all this to be a conspiracy by the military which was determined to get rid of him once and for all. It’s important to remember that Sharif hasn’t always had a good relationship with the country’s all-powerful army. His first stint as prime minister ended when the Chief of the Army Staff forced him to resign in 1993 following corruption charges. His second premiership was cut short in 1999 when Gen Musharraf toppled him and sent him into exile in Saudi Arabia for almost a decade.

During this third term, which started in 2013, Sharif’s relationship with the military was also strained. Soon after taking office Sharif was determined to negotiate with the Pakistan Taliban (the TTP as it is known here) as he had promised during the election campaign. The army was dead set against these talks, having lost 5000 men fighting the terrorists in the tribal areas along the border with Afghanistan. These talks, which were going nowhere, ended following an attack on Karachi airport in June 2014. Following the horrendous TTP attack on a school in December 2014, the military was determined that its wide-scale operation in the tribal areas would hunt down all militants, Pakistani and Afghan. On the whole, this military operation has been effective in eliminating, degrading and disrupting the various terrorist groups.

However, there is still lingering suspicion in the higher echelons of the military and the bureaucracy in Washington that the Afghan Taliban and the Haqqani Network are still getting assistance from elements of the Pakistan military for their attacks against civilian and military targets in Afghanistan. These doubts as to whether Pakistan is running with the hare and hunting with the hounds is nagging American policy-makers. So increasingly officials are wondering what sort of pressure can be put on Pakistan to change its ways. This question is particularly pertinent today given that the White House is in the process of reviewing its Afghan policy, one that was meant to be finalised by mid-July. This review has now broadened to cover American policy toward India and Pakistan.

The chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Defence Committee, Senator Mushahid Hussain, recently said at a meeting here in Washington that he was hoping that there would be clarity from the Trump administration on its approach to South Asia. Unfortunately, given the internal infighting in the White House on this issue (and many others), it’s unlikely that we will be getting clear guidance on this matter in the near future.

Turning to Pakistan’s relationship with its two large neighbours, China and India, no one expects any changes. Chinese officials were quick to reassure everyone that the massive China Pakistan Economic Corridor projects wouldn’t be affected by Sharif’s downfall. As for India, no one is expecting changes either in the bilateral relationship, if anything it will probably get worse before it gets better. There had been much hope that PM Modi and PM Sharif—two business-friendly leaders—would move the relationship forward. However, nothing came of that, instead relations deteriorated in the wake of terrorist attacks in India by Pakistan-based jihadists.

So while on the whole the ousting of Nawaz Sharif is good news for trying to improve the poor state of governance in Pakistan. It’s unlikely to make too much of a difference in the long-term. Many more corrupt politicians would need to be disqualified to run for office before the people of Pakistan would be convinced that there is a genuine change in the air.

Proof, if proof is necessary, that little will change is the fact that Nawaz Sharif has chosen his brother, Shahbaz Sharif, who is the Chief Minister of Punjab, to eventually replace him as prime minister of Pakistan. However, by August 3 the leaders of the PML-N had yet to agree to Nawaz Sharif’s choice to replace him permanently following a by-election to fill his parliamentary seat which Shahbaz would contest. There’s a feeling in the party that it might be best not to replace Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the temporary prime minister, and instead let him contest the federal election due to be held around June 2018. Regardless as to who is eventually chosen as prime minister, as leader of the party, Nawaz Sharif will make sure that his successor makes no changes without his approval.