Pakistan’s fledgling democracy took a new turn on Friday as the country’s superior court disqualified the most popular, thrice-elected prime minister on charges of corruption. In response to the ruling, Nawaz Sharif tendered his resignation on Friday
Sharif, now to be called former prime minister, and his close associates look at the whole saga as a conspiracy against him and his government by a “hidden hand.” The majority of Pakistanis who watch the 24/7 television channels know very well what it means when a political leader or party refers to terms such as “hidden hands” or “conspiracy.”
Maligned, demoralized, and finally disqualified on charges of corruption, Sharif’s removal from the scene is a grim reminder of the democratic era of the 1990s, after military ruler General Zia-ul-Haq was killed in a mysterious plane crash on August 17, 1988.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Four governments – two each headed by late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif – were sent packing on charges of corruption and mismanagement. The developments on July 28, 2017 are different from those of the ’90s in the sense that the previous governments were ousted by the president with the backing of the same “hidden hands” now referred to by Sharif and his party’s leaders.
Earlier, Article 58(2b) of the Constitution was used to remove a government, but since it was repealed by the parliament during the previous government, Article 62 of the Constitution was used to disqualify Sharif. Article 62 calls for the elected representatives to be “Sadiq” and “Ameen” (honest and righteous). Both Articles 58 (2b) and Article 62 were added to the Constitution of Pakistan by the military dictator Zia-ul-Haq to tame the elected governments and elected representatives.
Sharif’s disqualification will likely further deepen the misunderstandings between the leading political parties and the country’s powerful security establishment.
Unlike the war against the Taliban that the Pakistani security forces are fighting in rugged terrain along the Afghan border, this is a tug of war mostly invisible to the outside world, but very clearly visible to those who understand the intricacies of political gambling between Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
The latest development on Pakistan’s political scene surfaced a year after the uncovering of unlawful offshore accounts of politicians and businessmen by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) in April 2016. The leaked documents, dubbed the Panama Papers, carried the names of Sharif’s close family members. Since April of this year, Sharif has been under immense pressure from opposition parties to step down.
To investigate Sharif family’s offshore accounts, a five-member Joint Investigation Team (JIT) was formed under instructions from the Supreme Court of Pakistan in April. The team presented its report before the court on July 10. However, Sharif and his party leaders see not the rule of law in action, but a conspiracy, obviously from the country’s security establishment, to unseat the prime minister.
For decades, the Pakistani security establishment remained, and still is, wary of the country’s popular Pakistan People’s Party of the late Benazir Bhutto and some smaller Baloch and Pashtun nationalist parties, whose leaders are also targets of different militant groups. These smaller parties leaders also privately blame the “hidden hand” for not allowing them space in the country’s political arena.
In reality, the country is the scene of a constant struggle between the country’s powerful security establishment and supporters of a democratic, tolerant, and liberal Pakistan. The July 28 court decision is being viewed as part of the same struggle.
To understand this, one needs not rummage through pages of books, newspapers, or magazines. Simply switch on any Urdu television channel to watch and listen to retired generals-cum-defense and political analysts attacking the democratic system and politicians for every visible and invisible wrong in the country.
Those retired generals, often dubbed as unannounced spokesmen of the military by politicians, journalists, and civil society representatives in their private discussions, generally portray India, Afghanistan, and the United States conspiring against Pakistan using the anti-establishment political leadership.
Politicians, on the other hand, often speak of “democracy under threat” and that threat obviously refers to the security establishment, more specifically the military’s top echelons. Since Pakistan’s short history is replete with regular and frequent military interventions, many in the country, mostly political activists, easily subscribe to this mantra. Speaking at a conference in November 2016, Chairman of Pakistan’s Senate Raza Rabbani had said that “civil-military relations were the biggest challenge to democracy [in Pakistan].”
Apart from the retired generals, who always stand ready to defend their institution, a host of political leaders and religious parties, often referred to as the army’s B team, readily stand by the generals’ side whenever they lock horns with an elected government or prime minister.
In this fight, the craftily coined terminology of “Ghaddar” (traitor) is quite a handy tool for those parties to malign their opponents, who want the rule of law and supremacy of the Constitution. In the Pakistani context, a so-called “Ghaddar” could mean anyone favoring friendly ties with India, closer cooperation with the United States, or non-interference in Afghanistan.
Interestingly enough, no general since Field Marshal Muhammad Ayub Khan, the first in the list of those who imposed martial law in Pakistan, not even General Yayha Khan, who is seen as the most responsible for the dismemberment of Pakistan in December 1971, was labeled as “Ghaddar.”
During the recent political crisis in Pakistan, when the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz or PML-N party leaders consistently mentioned a “conspiracy” and “hidden hand,” that obviously refers to the military establishment and its intelligence agencies. Meanwhile, the slogan of their opponents is “Modi Ka Jo Yaar Hai, Ghaddar Hai, Ghaddar Hai” (roughly, “whoever is Modi’s friend, he is a traitor,” referring to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi).
Political analysts believe the army was not happy with Sharif’s “softer” approach toward India and his non-interference approach toward Afghanistan. An industrialist who entered the corridors of power as a counterweight to late two-time Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto during the period of military rule under General Zia ul Haq in the ’80s, Sharif’s agenda centers on forging stronger trade and economic ties with the neighbors.
Referring to the corruption cases and political crisis in Pakistan, former senator and nationalist leader Afrasiab Khattak (no relation to the author) writes in his July 22 article in Pakistan’s English daily newspaper The Nation:
[T]he gloves are coming off as the creeping coup is entering its final stage and is going for the kill. We have been told that the JIT is an extension of the Supreme Court. We already know that it’s also an extension of the premier intelligence agencies of the country that are part and parcel of the security establishment.”
In hard-hitting remarks in June 2015, former President Asif Ali Zardari warned the security establishment against the character assassination of political parties. “If you do not stop, I will come out with a list of accused generals since Pakistan’s creation,” said the former president, who has been labeled as Mr. 10 Percent for his alleged corruption.
Like Bhutto in the ’90s, Sharif’s elected government was also twice toppled – once by his own president with the backing of the army, and then directly by the military generals led by General Pervez Musharraf. Now his disqualification by the Supreme Court is being seen as a covert coup to remove and replace Sharif, who was out of the good books of the top brass for his pro-India approach.
Being an ethnic Punjabi, coming from Pakistan’s most populous and most prosperous province, Sharif’s unceremonious removal from power will add another bitter chapter to the relations between the pro-democracy politicians and the security establishment. It will further divide a country already experiencing serious divisions along sectarian and religious lines.
Daud Khattak is Senior Editor for Radio Free Europe Radio Liberty’s Pashto language Mashaal Radio. Before joining RFE/RL, Khattak worked for The News International and London’s Sunday Times in Peshawar, Pakistan. He has also worked for Pajhwok Afghan News in Kabul. The views expressed here are the author’s own and do not represent those of RFE/RL.
Child receiving a polio shot in Pakistan. Flickr/Ribi image library.Some rights reserved.Between December 2012 and early 2015, 78 people were murdered and dozens of others injured because they tried to administer a polio vaccine to children. They were killed because of a claim that the vaccines in their coolboxes were actually chemical devices in a western plot to sterilise Muslims.
These killings all took place in Pakistan, the archetypal ‘failed state’. What better evidence can there be that the country is a nest of terrorists than that it cannot stop the murder of medics trying to wipe out a deadly, crippling disease – all because of a conspiracy theory?
In the midst of these killings, though, something happened that has never happened in Pakistan before. One democratically elected political party handed over power to another, in a general election in which 55 per cent of people eligible to vote turned out. It was an event supported by all major Pakistani media outlets, including those that have sided in the past with the military and against civilian rule.
So as the wave of killings of vaccine workers continues (although much diminished), which of these two pictures is wrong: ‘failed state’ or – however we hedge this – ‘democratic state’? And what kind of threat has the vaccination conspiracy theory posed to democratic aspirations in Pakistan?
The answers require a short history of the conspiracy theory itself.
It all seems to have started in northern Nigeria in 2003, when a physician and Islamist called Dr Ibrahim Datti Ahmed accused the Americans of lacing the polio vaccine with an anti-fertility agent. By mid-2004, this theory had jumped to India, and by 2005, sixteen countries where polio had been eradicated were reporting outbreaks of infection. Even so, by 2012 the number of countries where polio was endemic was down to just three: Nigeria, Afghanistan and, by far the worst, Pakistan.
In June that year, a Pakistani Taliban leader called Gul Bahadur issued a fatwa in which he announced, “a ban on [the] polio vaccination campaign from today… anybody who disrespects this order will not have the right to complain about any loss or harm.”
Just a month later, details were revealed by Pakistani authorities of how a Pakistani medic, Shakil Afridi, had been hired by the CIA in 2011 to create a fake vaccination programme (for hepatitis B rather than polio) in order to try to confirm the location of Osama bin Laden.
The vaccination conspiracy theory was now both weaponised and supported by “evidence” of past US interference. When the killings began in 2012, one of the first results was a dramatic spike in polio infection.
But the murders also created headlines around the world, and provoked a reaction in Pakistan itself, expressed through mainstream and social media. Eventually, in January 2014, the Pakistani Taliban declared that it was no longer opposed in principle to polio vaccinations, albeit with the warning that, “we simply cannot allow vaccinators when we have the case of Shakil Afridi in front of us.” Another Taliban leader admitted that, “unfortunately there are still some elements within the [Pakistani Taliban] who believe in baseless conspiracy theories.”
A year later, the killings have slowed, the government has resumed its vaccination programme, and, according to the WHO, the rate of infection in Pakistan has fallen by 70 per cent since 2014.
The exertion of public pressure to stop the killings happened in at least some part through a national and local media – liberalised ironically by a military dictator, Pervez Musharraf, in 2002 – that provided a platform for objection. So a key ingredient of a functioning democracy is at work in these protests against the killings, in the sense that there is a public space, however mediated, for views to be expressed and exchanged.
But democracy is not only about public forums for free expression, but also about legitimacy and rights.
Legitimacy, in the sense, for example, of free and fair elections where one party hands over peacefully to another, is something new to Pakistan. However, the vaccination conspiracy theory, made murderous by the Taliban, posed a serious threat to this legitimacy.
This is because the military in Pakistan has never been under complete control by civilian prime ministers or legislatures, and yet it fell largely to the military to tackle the killings at source. Anything that requires the still relatively unfettered military to step in erodes power exercised democratically. It also fits a damaging narrative to the outside world: that it’s the military that keeps Pakistan from falling completely into a failed-state abyss, therefore it’s the military that should receive the lion’s share of foreign aid.
Furthermore, the fact that the attacks were claimed by the Pakistani Taliban meant that this was a sustained assault orchestrated by the single largest internal threat to democratic rule. The Taliban committed to destroying democracy: it has successfully, if briefly, taken over a substantial part of the north of the country (Swat Valley in 2006-7), destroying schools and famously attempting to murder the schoolgirl blogger Malala Yousafzai, and it has carried out an horrendous massacre of schoolchildren at an Army school in Peshawar.
As for rights, the Taliban’s attacks and the conspiracy theory that justified them, threatened people in the large pools of poverty and discrimination, including the largest registered refugee community in the world: Afghans who have fled war, and have settled in the slums of Karachi, Peshawar and the tribal areas. None of these refugees has political rights – the right to vote, for example – in Pakistan. Therefore their voice is diminished in the face of these attacks – something that’s reinforced by low literacy rates, as well as an adherence among some in the refugee camps to the very conspiracy theory used to justify attacks on those who try to protect their children from disease.
While political rights (the right to vote), civil rights (the right to be free of discrimination) and property rights (the right to secure title of land) are enshrined in the Pakistani constitution, they remain elusive for people on the margins of Pakistani society. They are then further diminished by the actions of a militant-led campaign of murder reminiscent of the mayhem the refugees had fled from in the first place.
So if democracy is making steady inroads into the institutional fabric of Pakistan, the violence that accompanied the vaccination conspiracy theory has posed a serious challenge.
There are still, though, reasons for optimism. Not only did a wave of strong public objection seem to weigh on the Taliban’s commitment to its campaign; but a general election did take place (although in the face of violence, some of it from the Taliban) and political parties did peaceably swap sides between government and opposition. There are other encouraging indicators too, including a persistent rise in literacy rates in the last three decades.
But from a western point of view, the critical point is this: we need to change the narrative. Pakistan is not a failed state. The polio murders have disrupted and camouflaged the extent to which the country has, against severe odds, strengthened its democratic commitments. Nor is Pakistan saved from failed-statehood by pouring billions more into military coffers at the expense of governance, education, health and the public sphere.
If the deadly effectiveness of the vaccination conspiracy theory was measured by a spike in polio infection rates in Pakistan, the capacity of the country’s political institutions to respond is measured at least in part by the fact that the country is back on track, finally, to wiping out the scourge of polio altogether.