The former Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif has just been sentenced to eleven years in prison after a court found that he and his family have acquired property abroad that he could not reasonably account for based on his known income or holding of assets. The section of Pakistani law which was used to sentence Nawaz and members of his family reads as follows:
“A holder of a public office, or any other person, is said to commit or to have committed the offence of corruption and corrupt practices…. if he or any of his dependents or benamidar owns, possesses, or has [acquired] right or title in any [assets or holds irrevocable power of attorney in respect of any assets] or pecuniary resources disproportionate to his known sources of income, which he cannot [reasonably] account for [or maintains a standard of living beyond that which is commensurate with his sources of income“.
Nawaz Sharif was consequently sentenced to eleven years in prison, his daughter Maryam to seven, while the former Premier’s son-in-law Capt (retd) Safdar was sentenced to one year in prison in spite of dramatic attempts by the family’s lawyers to delay sentencing. In each case, the sentencing stems from charges relating to a foreign property empire owned by Nawaz and members of his family revolving around the Avenfield block of flats in London.
Nawaz Sharif who in 2017 was barred from holding any public office for life by the Supreme Court (thus ending his period as Prime Minister), has vowed to fight the charges and sentences which he has described as politicised and untrue. With the court ruling from the 6th of July coming just weeks before Pakistan’s general election on the 25th, the sentencing will clearly have reverberations throughout the electoral landscape of the country.
The old guard vs. new guard narrative
The dramatic downfall of Nawaz Sharif and his family fits into the narrative of Nawaz’s long time bitter personal/political rival Imran Khan. At a national level, this year’s election is a competition between Imran and his populist/third way PTI party versus the PML-N, Pakistan’s traditional conservative party that is currently being led by Nawaz’s brother Shehbaz Sharif.
Imran Khan has long chided Nawaz and his family for being corrupt on a mass scale while rhetorical missiles flying across television channels between PTI supporters and members versus PML-N supporters and members are a regular occurrence. Thus, the court handing down Nawaz the prison sentence is already being used by the PTI to demonstrate that Imran Khan’s accusations over the years have been correct as many of them have now been vindicated by the ruling of a high court.
Today in the blistering heat the people of Dir and Swat came out in great numbers for our jalsas. People are ready and eager for change and an end to corruption. pic.twitter.com/c0tCytiSLo
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) July 6, 2018
Imran Khan remains the perennial ‘young man’ of Pakistani politics not least because his party has never held power at a national level since its formation in 1996. The narrative of supporting a brighter future for young Pakistanis who have grown despondent with the old political class remains a major calling card for PTI. In spite of being in opposition at a national level throughout PTI’s existence, since 2013 PTI has ruled the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province and generally has a record of effective government in one of the most notoriously ungovernable places not only in Pakistan but in all of south Asia. Imran Khan often points to this achievement as one that could be extrapolated throughout the country in a general election win – the clear implication being that if one can rule Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, this experience at a party political level makes PTI more than ready for government across Pakistan.
Meanwhile, PML-N supporters challenge Khan’s ‘young and ready for change’ narrative by pointing out Khan’s personal inexperience in government while also slamming Khan for allegedly poor party organisation and even dubious links to extremist groups, a charge which Khan has always stated is slanderous.
Then there is the PPP, the PML-N’s traditional centre-left rival in what before the arrival of PTI was a contemporary two-party system at a national level. The centre-left PPP is currently being run by the son of slain former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari. At the age of only 29, many believe that Bilawal has yet to grow into his position as party leader in spite of surprising critics along the campaign trail which in his case has been managed with caution – thus avoiding the public screaming matches between PTI and PML-N that have dominated headlines. That being said, it is generally received wisdom that after the lacklustre performance of the PPP in the 2013 elections, that this year’s fight at a national level remains one between a surging PTI and an incumbent PML-N.
A national vote of confidence on Nawaz Sharif?
Nawaz Sharif was ironically in London at his Avenfield property when the sentencing was handed down. Therefore, many are suggesting that if he and his family members do not return to Pakistan to face down the sentence, it will represent a degradation of PML-N in the eyes of the Pakistani public. In this sense, the election is now being described as a vote of confidence either for or against Nawaz personally and his party by extrapolation.
While there is some truth to this interpretation, it is in many ways being exaggerated. Rather than creating an entirely new electoral narrative, the sentencing of Nawaz and some of his family members merely enforces the existing narrative of youth, clean government and change that PTI tends to represent versus experience, a known political record and manifold international relations that PML-N tends to represent.
If Nawaz Sharif does fly to Pakistan before the 25th, it could result in a boost for his party’s electoral fortunes as he could personally rally supporters behind his message that a wider judicial/establishment conspiracy has been lined up against him. However, this could also play into the hands of Iman Khan who could paint such a move as one of desperation. In this sense, while Nawaz remaining in London will be interpreted by some as a tacit admission of guilt, if his return to Pakistan was poorly managed, it could also show that the “party of experience” is losing its sheen of real or imagined competence.
Symbolism is always important during any election cycle and this year’s elections in Pakistan already have the weight of history riding upon them as the 25th of July will represent only the second peaceful democratic transition of power since Pakistan’s founding. Because of this, Nawaz is viewed by millions as a fallen leader whose name and reputation can never be resurrected while for millions of others, he is a political martyr whose career is being ruined by a military-judicial complex that he has fallen out of favour with.
Mathematically, much of the election will depend on how many votes PTI can rally in the PML-N heartland that is Punbaj province – particularly in south Punjab where PTI has been winning support from the poor who feel they’ve been neglected by the northern Punjab based PML-N party machine. If Imran Khan and his PTI can convince enough Punjabi voters of their narrative of clean youth versus corrupted experience, the election could now easily swing in favour of PTI at a national level, even though just months ago many felt that a PML-N victory was a foregone conclusion. In this sense, much of the next few weeks will hinge upon whose narrative appears to be the more robust and honest throughout Pakistan but especially in Punjab.