That there was virtually no doubt about the decision in the Avenfield flats reference was not so much a tribute to the strength of the prosecution’s case, as it was a criticism of the country’s courts. The only element of doubt was the sentences that would be passed on the defendants. The confiscation ordered of the flats can only be executed with the fullest cooperation of the British authorities, which may not exactly be forthcoming, considering that they are allowing the Harley Street Clinic to accept Mian Nawaz Sharif’s money as he pays for the private treatment of his ailing wife. The jail sentences and fines levied on the defendants will be easier to carry out if Mian Nawaz and his co-accused come back to Pakistan. It seems his sons are not coming back, though he and his daughter are. It might be remembered that, after the 2000 coup, and after he was given a life sentence by a military court for hijacking, he was sent into exile rather than serve the sentence. He and his supporters insist that there was no deal, but as the rest of the family, none of whom had been convicted, went into exile, there was at least some intimation of what was happening.
That episode has been mentioned by those who think Mian Nawaz might stage a comeback. If he could make a comeback from that, goes the argument, he can make a comeback from this. However, there are certain differences. In 1999, he was 50. Now he is 68. It is true that he was overthrown in 1999, and made a comeback in 2013. At 50, one can afford 13 years, but not at 70. The example of Malaysia’s Dr Mahathir Mohammad returning to office at 90 might be both encouraging and discouraging; encouraging as evidence that great age is no bar to a comeback, but discouraging as an indication that he might need the time afforded by great age. Mian Nawaz is not only no longer a young man, but has undergone a quadruple bypass. That means he is a permanent heart patient.
At the same time, the belief of PML(N) supporters that he can make a comeback shows a belief that the judicial process can be reversed. There are precedents enough to foster this belief. However, this belief is not complimentary to the judiciary. While it has been widely accused of doing the military’s bidding, it should be noted that reversing Mian Nawaz’s convictions and consequent disqualification from public office will involve something new. Existing precedents involve military court convictions. Now, civilian courts will have to be reversed. In one case, the Supreme Court will have to reverse itself. Not impossible, but in cricketing parlance, a big ask.
A parallel with the 1999 coup is the ‘holding’ or caretaker role of younger brother Mian Shehbaz Sharif. Though Mian Shehbaz, then as now Punjab Chief Minister, joined Mian Nawaz in exile, his son Hamza remained in Pakistan, the only member of the family left to do so, both to continue dickering over the division of assets and to manage the family businesses. He also proved the only point of contact for the party’s workers, and was the family’s pointman for the bids to return, the unsuccessful one in 2007 and the successful one in 2008.
This time around, not just Hamza, but Mian Shehbaz himself, is in the caretaker role. Mian Shehbaz is the new President of the PML(N) and the party candidate for the Prime Ministership. The ‘seatwarmer’ role is strengthened by the Avenfield decision, for it ousts not just Mian Nawaz, but also his children, from politics. The debate over who would be Punjab Chief Minister if Mian Shehbaz became PM, has been decided. It would appear logical that the office should not go outside the Sharif family. The only time it did, when Mian Nawaz in 1990 picked Ghulam Haider Wyne, the province was lost. This had led to Mian Shehbaz becoming Chief Minister after the 1997 election, despite the displeasure of Ch Pervez Elahi, who ultimately reached the position.
However, the internal family dynamic had meant that Hamza, who had been groomed for the job, could not be given it. Instead, Mian Nawaz’s daughter Maryam emerged as a strong contender. At present, Mian Shehbaz himself remains a contender. It is as likely as not that the PML(N) will retain control of the Punjab while going into opposition at the centre. In that case, Mian Shehbaz could well opt to remain chief minister. He is contesting a provincial seat as well as national, thereby leaving that option open.
Another parallel is that after the coup, Mian Nawaz had to face corruption charges. The belief of his opponents that his corruption would now be detected proved as ill-founded as the belief that dissolution of the PPP governments in 1990 and 1996 would lead to corruption convictions for its leaders.
In a way, it is eerie how the Avenfield case has led to the same results for Mian Nawaz as the Musharraf Martial Law. He has been plucked out of the country’s politics and placed abroad. The Musharraf regime could not make this stick. Mian Nawaz not only came back to Pakistan, but also returned as Prime Minister. That has all been reversed. This is a powerful argument for the PML(N) narrative, which argues that the military is doing its best to put Mian Nawaz in his place.
At one level, this is correct, for Mian Nawaz was initially nothing more than a military protégé. However, now he is something more; the symbol of a rightist bent of mind. The military had initially worked with Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, but he and his PPP became independent, a representative of a leftist mindset, thereby forcing the military to raise up Mian Nawaz. It has now moved on to Imran Khan, but even before he and his PTI have achieved either power or independence, there are signs of a new group with establishment backing, the so-called ‘jeep group’, of independents, who have emerged in these elections. There are even predictions that the next PM will come from this group, with Ch Nisar Ali Khan a strong possibility.
It is almost as if the establishment is tired of building up a leader, who then gives himself airs. The aim is therefore to obtain political cover for the military’s continued veto over security and foreign policy. The political model for the future is the building of temporary majorities without parties. This is problematic. This was part of the reason why then President Ziaul Haq was reluctant to allow Muhammad Khan Junejo to convert his non-party majority into the PML parliamentary party, which was when both Mian Nawaz and Ch Nisar joined the PML. As a matter of fact, the non-party model can be traced back to the formation of the Republican party in 1955. Political leaders, even artificial ones, prefer party organisations.
However, political leaders also represent something. PML(N) supporters are not accepting Mian Nawaz’s conviction. This is not because of cussedness or stubborn partisanship, but because the judicial process has been misused in the past to further establishment aims. As a necessary concomitant, accountability has been used as a tool of persecution rather than of justice, right from the infamous EBDO, which the Ayub Martial Law used to purge politicians 60 years ago. The Avenfield flats reference is seen by PML(N) supporters as a continuation of that tradition rather than as the beginning of a brave new world as PTI supporters seem to see it. The PTI needs to be wary. It could find itself in difficulties for corruption whenever its sponsors decide, because it is a willing partner in a system where prosecuting corruption is more about doing down opponents than about actually ridding society of an evil.
n The writer is a veteran journalist
and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.