Why Nawaz Sharif was removed?

Nawaz Sharif, like Benazir Bhutto, twice came to the office of Prime Minister but could not complete the either term. The immediate contexts of both dismissals might be different, but the long term dilemmas characterized by non-institutionalized and personalized rule remains the same.

During his first term, Nawaz Sharif was denied the legitimate political space by the extra-parliamentary forces–”exerting influence through the president. He was removed at the end of the day. During his second tenure, Sharif enjoyed maximum political and constitutional powers, unparalleled to any prime minister of Pakistan. There was no powerful president, no formidable opposition, and virtually no informal checks and balances which usually exist in a democratic polity. Still he met the same fate.

Did Sharif stand on a solid or a shaky ground? A leader’s strength lies in the political organization, which connects him with the people–”the ultimate source of legitimacy and political strength. The Muslim League was a coalition of various oligarchic interests, dependent on state patronage and Sharif rose to its leadership with transparent facilitation from the very establishment; he turned against, latter on.

Though earlier co-option does not forfeit the right of a leader to reclaim his authority, a leader does need a solid foundation to stand on. By not organizing the party, Sharif kept him deprived of the real source of his strength. The role of extra-parliamentary forces could only be restricted through building a party system, evolving a consensus among the political parties, and making cabinet and parliament real institutions.

At the heart of problem is not the lack of power of prime minister, but the lack of institutionalized power. It has been amply demonstrated by the second Sharif government that was rerun of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto in many respects. Like Bhutto he got a real opportunity to put the parliamentary system on track by strengthening the institutions. Again like Bhutto, Sharif II emerged as a leader with mass following, he could have exercised moral leadership, but again like Bhutto, he ignored this option.

Sharif established a personalized rule through an autocratic control of the party and by employing the populist techniques. Instead of providing institutionalized governance, he fostered a culture of Khuli Kuchahris (Open ‘Courts’). His behaviour pattern manifested little tolerance towards the difference of opinion and criticism –” both from within the party and without–”press and opposition.

During the both of his terms in office, he demonstrated a strong tendency either to bypass cabinet, party and parliament or to dictate his own decisions. In a nutshell, Sharif’s rule was like running a democracy without democrats. Little surprise, if the people had lost distinction between democracy and dictatorship, and few resented the demise of Sharif government. To be a democrat in political wilderness seems hardly convincing.

Besides a number of controversial constitutional amendments, the second Sharif government engaged in a sustained conflict with the Supreme Court which culminated in a physical assault on the court. A number of factors caused the conflict: increased judicial activism by the Chief Justice, the government’s bid to establish anti-terror courts–”independent of the Supreme Court’s control, the prime minister’s own pending cases in the court, and the ruling party’s belligerent attitude leading to contempt of court proceedings.

After the Judges Case in 1996, the Supreme Court under the Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah had acquired significant confidence which led to increased judicial activism. The Chief Justice took suo moto notice of government’s handling of a wheat-shipping contract from the United States, and also opened the cases of alleged illegal distribution of plots by the Prime Minister.

In 1997, the Parliament adopted the Anti-Terrorism Act, giving police unusual powers to use force against anyone committing, or believed to be about to commit a terrorist offence. Special courts, independent of the control of the superior judiciary, were established for summary trail of the persons charged with such offences. The Supreme Court’s disapproval of “the parallel justice system” furthered aggravated the ongoing conflict with the executive.

Sajjad Ali Shah had assured the Prime Minister, before the passage of the Act, that judiciary would deal quickly with outstanding cases. After the enactment of Anti-Terrorism Act, he asked the government to fill the five vacant seats in the Supreme Court, and named the judges for the purpose. The government responded with reduction in the strength of the Supreme Court by bringing the total number of judges down to the existing level.

Following a strong protest by the Supreme Court Bar Association, Nawaz Sharif had to step back, thus he retracted the Ordinance reducing the strength of judges. The Supreme Court by invoking Clause 190 of the Constitution, ordered President Leghari to intervene and notify the appointment of the five judges. The Prime Minister retaliated with an advice to the president asking for dismissal of the Chief Justice; the president refused to accept. Finally, the Prime Minister conceded the elevation of the judges as recommended by the Chief Justice, but it was not the end-game.

Meanwhile, opposition leaders flooded the Supreme Court with petitions against Sharif; the court invoked the doctrine of judicial activism and suspended the 14th amendment, believing that the amendment had violated freedom of expression. The government saw at as an attempt to stage a judicial coup, so, it retaliated with strong words terming the action of chief Justice as “illegal and unconstitutional”. When the court initiated contempt of court proceedings, the government “instead of tendering an unqualified apology–”which is the minimum requirement for ending such cases of contempt–”tried to gain political mileage out of the issue”, and amended the contempt of court law.

Encouraged by the government, some judges revolted against their Chief, as the Quetta bench of the Supreme Court suspended Sajjad Ali Shah, the Peshawar bench followed the suit, and it appeared as if there were two parallel Supreme Courts in the country. Sajjad Ali Shah remained stuck to his guns and continued with contempt of court trail against the Prime Minister. In the final show down, on November 28, 1997, the PML-N activists led by the party legislators stormed the Supreme Court building, and forced the trail to be abandoned.

The entire event, invasion of the court premises and intimidation of judges, was recorded by the security cameras at Supreme Court building. The final outcome was the resignation of President Leghari on December 2, 1997, and the forced departure of Chief Justice Sajjad Ali Shah. The President was asked to “de-notify” the Chief Justice, but he preferred to resign instead of signing the summary. So, Nawaz Sharif emerged victorious, and he claimed that it was the victory for parliamentary democracy. Some commentators anticipated an “elective dictatorship” rather than viceregalism. His position was further strengthened when Rafiq Tarar, a close friend of his father, was elected to the Presidency.

Similarly the accountability process (ehtesab), initiated by the Sharif government, entirely bypassed the judiciary and was put under the direct control of the prime minister, in accordance with a law passed by the PML-N dominated legislature. A close Sharif friend, Senator Saifur Rehman, chaired the ehtesab process. Highly partisan and selective manner of accountability derive made it appear to be an instrument for political arm-twisting.

In a similar squeeze, the PML-N government took major steps to curb press freedom. In February 1999, the government targeted the Jang Group, accusing it of tax evasion. The government simply refused to release the newsprint that the group had already paid for. Many independent observers believed that the government in fact had been pressing the newspaper owners to sack certain critical journalists. And the group’s refusal to oblige displeased the government, thus evoked this kind of response. The Jang Group contested the government’s accusation and filed a suit in a court. In another attempt to suppress information, in May 1999, the Pakistani authorities seized 4,000 copies of The Economist magazine featuring a cover story criticizing the government. The lead story in the magazine’s Asia edition was titled The Rot in Pakistan and had focused on the Pakistan Government’s crack down on press freedom.

The other high profile episode was the victimization and harassment of journalists who had cooperated in the production of the British Broadcasting Corporation’s documentary, dealing with corruption in the government and business concerns of the Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and allegations of money-laundering by his family. Najam Sethi, editor of the Friday Times was the most prominent journalist interviewed by the BBC in the documentary. He was picked and beaten by the government agencies for alleged anti-state activities. Other critical journalists were also arrested and beaten. In the same vein, Shahbaz Sharif, the younger brother of the prime minister, banned some 2,000 nongovernmental organizations, their assets were seized and bank accounts frozen. The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan was also threatened with similar action.

Such kinds of actions, by the ruling clique, were widely perceived as a part of comprehensive plan to establish the personalized rule by subjugating the higher judiciary, suppressing the political dissent, and subduing the free press and civil society. His insatiable desire to grab more powers brought his government in conflict with the military.

So, the Nawaz Sharif’s ill-advised attempt to strengthen his grip on military by removing General Musharraf was a disastrous step too far. It brought the longest era of civilian rule to an end, as the country came under the military rule, yet again. And Pakistan was back to square one, there were no protest in the streets, over the dismissal of the most heavily mandated government of Pakistan’s political history, but a noticeable sense of relief and a few celebrations instead, leaving a big question mark over the democratic experience of Pakistan.