Nawaz Sharif, Pakistan's Prime Minister, Toppled by Corruption Case
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan - Nawaz Sharif, the tycoon and party leader who helped define a turbulent era of Pakistani politics, stepped down as prime minister on Friday after the Supreme Court ruled that corruption allegations had disqualified him.
Coming with less than a year to go in his term, his ouster adds to a grim and long list of civilian governments cut short in Pakistan — including two of his own previous terms as prime minister. And it will further roil the country's tumultuous political balance, as his rivals vie to exploit his fall.
When Mr. Sharif returned to office in 2013, it was as a widely popular party leader with a deep grudge against the country's powerful military establishment. He moved quickly to try to establish civilian dominance over policy areas that had long been dominated by the generals, especially foreign policy.
But Mr. Sharif, 67, is exiting with none of those ambitions realized.
The Pakistani military has seldom been able to wield as potent a mix of policy control and popular acclaim as it does now. The fragile democratic system in this nuclear armed nation of almost 200 million people again appears to be on shaky ground. And Mr. Sharif's own political legacy stands further tarnished.
The governing political party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz, must now choose an interim prime minister to replace Mr. Sharif until the next general election, which is scheduled for mid-2018.
Announced by the five-member Supreme Court, the verdict on Friday caps more than a year of high political drama, breathless court proceedings and a piercing investigation into the finances of the Sharif family.
The charges against Mr. Sharif and three of his children - two sons and a daughter - stemmed from disclosures last year in the Panama Papers leak. Those documents revealed that the children owned expensive residential property in London through offshore companies.
The justices, drawing on a constitutional article that allows the courts to disqualify a member of parliament who is found to be dishonest, said that they were acting because Mr. Sharif had tried to conceal his assets. And they ordered the opening of a criminal investigation into the Sharif family.
Watching the courtroom drama was the country's powerful military, which has traditionally decided the fate of civilian governments. There had been hushed speculation that the court, in coming to its decision, had the tacit, if not overt, backing of powerful generals.
Now, Imran Khan, the opposition politician who has been spearheading the campaign against Mr. Sharif since he took power in 2013, stands to gain the most politically from the prime minister's removal. Mr. Khan has doggedly and almost obsessively led the charge against Mr. Sharif and rallied a wide swath of the public against him through a mix of street agitation and court petitions.
The Supreme Court had asked the members of the Sharif family to provide a paper trail of the money they used to buy their London apartments. Investigators found that they were "living beyond their means."
Despite repeated court exhortations, Mr. Sharif's family and its lawyers failed to provide satisfactory documentation, the justices said. Several of the documents they produced were declared fake or insufficient.
Nawaz Sharif served as prime minister an unprecedented three times. All his terms were cut short. Here's how they played out.
First term - In 1990, Mr. Sharif was ushered into power as head of the Pakistan Muslim League. As his business grew, suspicions of corruption surfaced. He was dismissed by President Ghulam Ishaq Khan in 1993. The Supreme Court eventually deemed his dismissal unconstitutional, but Mr. Sharif resigned under pressure from Pakistan's powerful military.
Second term - Mr. Sharif was elected again in 1997. Two years later, a military coup ended his term after he fired the army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, and then, according to reports, kept the general's return flight to Pakistan from landing. Troops loyal to Gen. Musharraf seized the Karachi airport and overthrew the prime minister. Mr. Sharif was tried and found guilty of hijacking and terrorism and sentenced to life in prison.
Third term - After spending seven years in exile in a deal brokered by the Saudi royal family, Mr. Sharif returned to Pakistan in 2007. He was cleared of criminal charges and deemed eligible to run for office. Mr. Sharif was again elected prime minister in 2013, but he was met with opposition and faced large protests in 2014. He was tried on corruption charges after the 2016 Panama Papers revealed that his children owned expensive homes in London through a string of offshore companies.
A representative of the governing party said that although Mr. Sharif was stepping down, the party had "strong reservations" about the verdict and was contemplating "all legal and constitutional means" to challenge it.
Mr. Sharif has called the inquiry into his family's finances a conspiracy and has asserted that in his three terms as prime minister he had not been tarred by a major corruption scandal.
The ruling, while expected, leaves undecided the long-term fate of the man who has been a dominating force in Pakistani politics for the better part of three decades.
"I did not expect Nawaz Sharif to go scot-free," said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a prominent political analyst who is based in Lahore.
"If he has a long-term vision, he will sit back and guide his political party," Mr. Rizvi added. "He and his supporters will portray the court verdict as victimization and a grave conspiracy involving international powers."
Mr. Sharif's removal from office throws his political succession plans into disarray. His daughter Maryam Nawaz Sharif, 43, who was being groomed as his political heir, was also implicated in the case.
Political insiders say there are several possible contenders to replace Mr. Sharif as prime minister in the immediate interim. Names being discussed as the immediate choice include Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, the speaker of the national assembly; Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, the minister of petroleum; Khurram Dastgir Khan, the commerce minister; and Khawaja Muhammad Asif, the defense minister.
"Whoever they bring will be a weak prime minister, as Nawaz Sharif would want to have someone who is more or less in line with his thinking," Mr. Rizvi said.
Longer-term, though, speculation is focusing on Mr. Sharif's brother Shehbaz, 65, who is the chief minister of Punjab Province and a prominent and divisive political figure in his own right. He would first have to take his brother's Parliament seat in a spot election.
Mr. Sharif in February. The charges against him stemmed from disclosures in the Panama Papers, including his family's residential property holdings in London.
But the stubborn scandal over the London real estate holdings sullied the reputation of his family.
Mr. Sharif's political party nonetheless hopes that his achievements can bring it another electoral success next year even if Mr. Sharif cannot run for office.
"We will make a comeback," Khawaja Saad Rafique, a party leader, said Friday afternoon at news conference flanked by other senior figures. He said that Mr. Sharif's "crime was that he stood for civilian supremacy."
He urged party workers to remain peaceful and said that the party respects the country's institutions. "There will be no chaos,'' he said. "We will move forward with wisdom and not emotion."
During his most recent tenure, Mr. Sharif had an uneven relationship with the military. His overtures of more openness toward India, Pakistan's longtime foe, backfired as generals spurned his efforts.
More recently, relations with the military took a darker turn after news reports detailed how civilian officials confronted the military over what they called a failure to act against Islamist groups. Mr. Sharif had to fire his information minister and two top aides to placate the army.
Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the chairman of the Pakistan Peoples Party, said the Panama Papers ruling was "a real test of our system."
Excerpt -New York Times