Stability and continuity

Stability and continuity
Pundits forecast that the next three months are critical for the survival of the Nawaz Sharif government. Their claim is based on the fact that there is a wellspring of public opinion against the corruption of politicians as revealed by Pananaleaks, which the opposition parties, led by the irrepressible Imran Khan, are going to exploit after Eid. The plan is to launch street protests to force the prime minister out of office.

The case against Mr Sharif is based on two facts: his two sons are beneficiary owners of offshore companies and his daughter was declared a dependent in his declaration before the Election Commission of Pakistan whereas she is also a shareholder in an offshore company. The first point is moot because his sons are neither dependents nor residents of Pakistan and it is not illegal for Pakistanis to own offshore companies. The second could be more problematic if his dependent daughter cannot prove she is no more than a mere trustee on behalf of her beneficial-owner brothers.

Both the PPP and PTI have filed references against Mr Sharif before the Election Commission of Pakistan and both are girding up their loins to heave Mr Sharif out of office via street agitation. Will they succeed?

Clearly, the pundits, like the PPP and PTI, are banking on some other factor to clinch the ouster of the beleaguered prime minister who refuses to budge. What is this “third” force or factor?

This is the “national security” establishment. This establishment does not like Mr Sharif for a number of reasons. It dislikes his “independent” demeanour in foreign policy formulation and implementation, traditionally its exclusive preserve. It hates him for putting an ex-army chief on trial for treason. And it believes him to be both corrupt and incompetent. It would dearly love to see the back of him but is constrained by several factors. Mr Sharif is an elected prime minister, and that too from Punjab, the heart of Pakistan, with a significant support base and organized political party with roots amongst the people. He has tenaciously fought his way out of many political storms. Short of a military takeover or ouster by the Supreme Court, he won’t quit. But the prospects of both happening are not bright.

The military isn’t quite ready to risk the internal and external consequences of a takeover and the SC under the current chief justice isn’t in the same aggressive political mode as his predecessor who shot down one prime minister and was aiming at another before retirement overtook his ambitions. So what is this hullaballoo all about?

One plausible theory is that the establishment wants to weaken the prime minister rather than get rid of him (because he will then do its bidding more readily in all matters of interest or concern to it) by stoking the opposition into street agitation and putting him on the back foot. The advantage of this approach is that he will then be more amenable to the pressing demand for an extension in the tenure of the three chiefs of staff of the establishment.

The speculation is focused especially on the army chief who has avowedly declined to seek or accept an extension in tenure like his predecessor but is under pressure from other vested interests among his ranks to hang on in some “acceptable” manner. This could be a legal extension in the service rules enabling all three chiefs to enjoy a four-year tenure rather than the current three years. Since the incumbent army chief is scheduled to retire in November this year, all this must be accomplished within the next three months before a new chief is announced, making the current chief a lame duck.

Mr Sharif must therefore be weighing his options just like the establishment and the opposition parties. If he doesn’t grant the desired “extension”, will the establishment get him? If he does, where is the guarantee that the establishment won’t still get him, if only to prove that it can’t be “bribed” against the “national interest”? Indeed, where is the insurance against much the same sort of pressure in 2017-18?

There is no doubt that General Raheel Sharif has so far demonstrated that he is the man of the hour. Some of his national security decisions have been courageous and far-reaching. Continuation in policy is therefore desirable. Equally, however, a case can be built against an extension in service because it is not in the collective interest of the institution that he serves and represents and the soldier-gentlemen to follow are likely to be no less good and competent.

Indeed, the case against an extension in service for the army chief or all service chiefs, regardless of their merits, is no different from the case for elected governments to complete their tenures regardless of their incompetence or lack of integrity. Pakistan desperately needs stability. But stability can only come from continuity that puts the pundits of doom and gloom out of business.

Najam Aziz Sethi is a Pakistani journalist, businessman who is also the founder of The Friday Times and Vanguard Books. Previously, as an administrator, he served as Chairman of Pakistan Cricket Board, caretaker Federal Minister of Pakistan and Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan.