Pakistan’s Supreme Court on Friday disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif over long-running corruption allegations against him and his family, a move that saw Sharif tender his resignation—triggering political turmoil and putting a question mark over Pakistan’s commitment to democracy.
The court also disqualified finance minister Ishaq Dar and asked the national anti-corruption bureau to launch a further probe into the allegations against Sharif, which stem from the Panama Papers leak last year linking his family to lucrative offshore businesses. Sharif, 67, has always denied any wrongdoing and dismissed the investigation as biased and inaccurate.
Among possible allies to replace Sharif in the short term are members of his outgoing cabinet including Defence Minister Asif Khawaja, Planning Minister Ahsan Iqbal and Petroleum Minister Shahid Abbasi.
According to Pakistani TV channel Geo News, Nawaz Sharif’s brother, Punjab province chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, is likely to be named the next prime minister.
Chairing a meeting of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz party as its president, Nawaz Sharif recommended his brother’s name as his replacement, the channel said.
Legally, though, such a move would require Shahbaz Sharif to step down as Punjab chief minister and win a by-election for an open parliamentary seat, which would take at least 45 days.
Dubbed the “Lion of Punjab", Sharif now seems part of a dubious tradition in Pakistan which has seen no prime minister ever complete a full five-year term. Sharif’s office said in a statement that he had “stepped down" despite having “serious reservations" about the judicial process.
“In the recent past, differences between Sharif and the Pakistan Army had grown and come out into the open," said former Indian foreign secretary Lalit Mansingh. “The new thinking in the Pakistan army is not to go for an overt coup but to control the government from within," he added.
Sharif is only the second after former prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to be dismissed by the Supreme Court. Friday’s decision makes it the third time in a row that Sharif’s tenure has been cut short.
Friday’s ruling follows another by the Supreme Court in April that there was insufficient evidence to remove Sharif from office. It had then ordered a probe by a joint investigative panel, which this month returned its findings that said Sharif’s family assets did not match its earnings.
India, with which Pakistan shares a tense relationship, is watching the political developments very closely, according to a person familiar with the matter. There was no formal comment from the Indian foreign ministry.
“This is their internal matter but any political crisis or instability in Pakistan is something watched carefully in India," said the person, who declined to be named.
Talks between the two countries have been suspended since 2013 and efforts to get the process kickstarted since 2014, when the Narendra Modi government took office in India, have come to naught. This is despite Modi visiting Pakistan in December 2015—the first such visit by an Indian prime minister in more than a decade.
“We are at the lowest point in India-Pakistan relations," said Mansingh. “The dialogue is virtually dead and there is no meeting ground between the two countries. I don’t foresee any change in the relationship in the near future," he added.
Shahbaz Sharif is currently chief minister of the powerful Punjab province—the Sharif family stronghold. He will have to step down and get elected to the National Assembly before he becomes eligible to be prime minister.