Pakistan’s political stability is always tenuous on the best days. The decision by the country’s Supreme Court to send Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif packing for misstating his assets risks thrusting Pakistan into a period of political and economic uncertainty that will reverberate until next summer’s general elections, not only domestically but also in already shaky Afghanistan.
For now, Sharif has nominated his petroleum minister, Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, as his successor, ensuring the ex-prime minister continues to call the shots. But Sharif and his family will face a trial over the next six months on charges of financial corruption. And Pakistan’s political parties already are showing signs of tit-for-tat litigation that could further weaken all of them in the eyes of the public and, just as importantly, in relation to the country’s already powerful military.
To be sure, there is much to cheer in the fact that a traditionally pliant Supreme Court has managed to hold a sitting and popular prime minister accountable. This isn’t a common sight in Pakistani politics.
But in crafting their ruling, the justices used the controversial and vague Articles 62/63 of the Pakistani constitution that require Pakistani lawmakers to remain “truthful” and “honest.” The court itself has called Article 62 a “nightmare” in the past, given the difficulty in defining these terms objectively. Now having used these clauses to oust the prime minister, the court may have opened Pandora’s box. Sharif’s allies have already started bringing charges against their political opponents under the same article. Other such cases are sure to follow.
In the past, such prolonged political bickering has disgusted the Pakistani street and led it to question the efficacy of the entire democratic system. This naturally strengthens the Pakistani army’s hand, further tilting the already lopsided civilian-military balance in its favor.
On the face of it, the scenario changes little for U.S. policymakers seeking Pakistan’s support to quell Taliban attacks in Afghanistan that are instigated by the group’s leadership across the border. The Pakistani army already dominates decision-making on the country’s regional policy, with the civilian leadership playing second fiddle at best. Yet, the U.S. tries to work foreign policy issues through elected leaders as much as possible. The impending political uncertainty in the country will make this harder given that the new political leadership is likely to be fixated on domestic political survival and electioneering rather than foreign policy.
The developments in Pakistan are also relevant for the prospects of Pakistani military action against the Taliban and the Haqqani network. The Pakistani army is highly image-conscious and insists on political cover for domestic military operations. Virtually all major counterterrorism operations in recent years commenced only after the political parties publicly backed them and managed to rally popular support behind the military action. Some, like the Zarb-e-Azb operation that began in North Waziristan in June 2014 and cut the Pakistani Taliban to size, were repeatedly delayed under the pretext that they lacked public demand.
Concerted action against the Taliban and Haqqani network was already a distant prospect. But even if the army were somehow convinced of its merits, Pakistani politicians are unlikely to invest the political capital needed to generate favorable public opinion for anti-Taliban operations between now and next summer’s general elections.