Nawaz Sharif is the proverbial cat with nine lives. But his third, the longest and perhaps final term as Pakistan’s prime minister, came to an end last Friday when the Supreme Court of the country disqualified him from holding public office. Although the discourse has been clouded by the Panama Papers, which had details of offshore companies allegedly owned by Sharif’s family members, the court ruling last week was on a much more vapid charge of failing to reveal potential income from a Dubai-based company. Whether Sharif is able to make yet another comeback is still to be seen, but this development has raised concerns among observers around the world about the future of Pakistani democracy—however superficial it may be.

Was the judiciary in Pakistan simply fronting for the army? This is not unthinkable in Pakistan, where the judiciary has repeatedly used the “doctrine of necessity" to give a veneer of legality to all the coups so far effected by the generals of the Pakistani army. The joint investigation team formed by the apex court to look into Sharif’s case had members from military intelligence (MI) and Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). The use of the judiciary to get democratically elected prime ministers out of the way, however, is not very old. In the previous instance, Yousaf Raza Gilani was disqualified by the Supreme Court in 2012 on charges of contempt of court. Prime ministers have been dismissed earlier too—no prime minister, in fact, has completed a full term in Pakistan—but through the office of the president. The army’s role has been the constant factor.

That this case was hardly about corruption was clear from the start. Betraying the malice , one of the judges had during the course of hearings compared the Sharif family to the mafia family in Mario Puzo’s The Godfather. In the end, a trivial charge was found to implicate Sharif under a law that was enacted during military dictator General Zia-ul-Haq’s tenure. In Gilani’s case too, corruption provided an excuse, albeit in a more roundabout manner. Gilani was found guilty of refusing to comply with the court’s order to open dormant corruption cases against then president Asif Ali Zardari.

Corruption charges and the purchase of a property in Britain formed the backdrop of Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto’s dismissal by President Farooq Leghari in 1996. The Supreme Court, on cue, upheld the dismissal. This is not to say that Pakistani politicians are lily-white. On the contrary, public office in Pakistan is unduly exploited for private gain. Hardly anyone will vouch for the probity of either the Sharifs or the Bhutto-Zardari family. But the fact remains that these corruption charges are marshalled against the party in power at a time of the army’s convenience. And the army officials who benefit from—as the scholar Ayesha Siddiqa has documented—systemic control over unaccounted flow of money are hardly ever touched.

It is impossible that Sharif’s disqualification order could have been delivered without the Pakistan army’s green signal. However, to call this development a “soft coup" or a “judicial coup" would be an exaggeration. As far as army control over the levers of power in Pakistan is concerned, it remains unchanged. While Sharif was elected with a handsome mandate in 2013, the Pakistani army had shown him his place in 2014. The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and the firebrand religious cleric Tahir-ul-Qadri were utilized to stage protests that Sharif could not handle without the mediation of Raheel Sharif, the then army chief. Since then, the Pakistani army has regularly chipped away at the powers of the civilian government, without much protest from Nawaz Sharif.

Foreign policy—and not just the India and Afghanistan policies—is almost entirely controlled by the army. Sharif was made to relinquish his desire to put former dictator Pervez Musharraf through a full criminal trial. The Pakistan army vetoed Sharif’s idea of solving the Tehrik-i-Taliban problem through dialogue. Through Operation Zarb-e-Azb, the army increased its influence in practically all the provinces of Pakistan. Sharif’s home state of Punjab wasn’t spared either. The army was able to get its way in establishing military courts to try terrorism-related offences. Yet, Sharif’s latest choice of army chief, Qamar Javed Bajwa, was not, by all accounts, driven by the ambition to assert his control over the army—unlike in 1998, when he chose a “Muhajir" in Musharraf.

The question therefore is: Why did Sharif have to go if he had already been cut to size? There are no clear answers. Perhaps the army wants to further lower the authority of the prime minister’s office. Shehbaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s younger brother and the designated successor, is deemed to be non-ambitious but he is not expected to depart much from Nawaz Sharif’s line. In that case, the latter’s ouster may simply be a case of judges trying to be more loyal than the king and the army playing along. In any case, the army retains the ability to restrain or overthrow any new claimant to power—whether it is Shehbaz Sharif now or Khan later. What is clear is that Nawaz Sharif’s removal in no way strengthens either democracy or the fight against graft in Pakistan.

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