Pakistan army soldiers patrol the town of Pattika in the Pakistan-administered state of Kashmir. (Photographer: Muzamill Pasha/Bloomberg News)

Pakistan’s Army Fights the Wrong Battle

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Nawaz Sharif -- dodgy businessman, convicted criminal, and thrice prime minister of Pakistan -- showed on Friday, in his triumphant return to Pakistan, that he remains by far the country’s most popular politician. Infuriatingly, he also represents Pakistan’s best chance at becoming a “normal” country anytime soon. As he fights what looks very much like an attempt by the military to decide the next election, the rest of us should hope he succeeds.

True, neither Sharif nor the army are actually running. The generals don’t need to get directly involved in the vote, to be held in under a fortnight. Their long history of using proxies in Afghanistan and in India seems to have convinced them they can simply do the same in domestic politics -- in this case, through ex-cricketer Imran Khan, whose 20-year quest to become prime minister may be within days of being fulfilled.

As for Sharif, he’s not allowed to take part. The military dictator Mohammad Zia Ul-Haq, who ruled Pakistan in the 1980s, had as part of his Islamization process inserted a clause into the constitution demanding that all legislators be “honest and righteous.” In April, five judges of the Supreme Court decided that a three-time prime minister on the brink of reelection was, in fact, the only person in history worth disqualifying for life under the clause.  

In addition, a court recently sentenced Sharif -- from a family of wealthy industrialists -- to 10 years in jail for not convincingly explaining his purchase, decades ago, of some expensive apartments in London. (The Pakistani establishment, when it decides to get rid of someone, doesn’t hold back.) Sharif was, in fact, in London at the time, visiting his ailing wife; many expected that he would stay in exile. Instead, he decided to fly back. He landed in Lahore on Friday as demonstrators loyal to his party were tear-gassed in the city. Sharif and his daughter were sent straight to jail near Rawalpindi, the seat of army headquarters.

Sharif -- who served his political apprenticeship under Zia -- is an unlikely vehicle for liberals’ aspirations, and not just because his party killed a white tiger during its campaign in 2013. For one, his Pakistan Muslim League has had a history of coddling religious fundamentalists. And not all accusations of corruption against his family are part of the military’s attempt to discredit Sharif, although many are.

Still, we must hope that he wins his battle with the army and the intelligence agencies seeking to control Pakistan. Sharif will never trust a military establishment that has never allowed him to complete a term in office. As for the military, they see Sharif’s attempts to foster a private sector-led economy as a genuine threat to their vast, entrenched interests. The military needs Pakistan to stay poor, stay dependent and stay angry. Sharif threatens that vision.

Many will argue that Sharif’s personal popularity is irrelevant; the rule of law and respect for institutions requires that he be shunted quietly into prison. Frankly, though, that’s a laughable argument in the Pakistani context. If anything, recent Pakistani history shows how easy it is to turn democratic institutions -- the media, the courts, anti-corruption agencies -- against true liberal democracy.

Elections aren’t free if they aren’t fair. And Pakistan’s election has been anything but fair. Shahbaz Sharif, brother to Nawaz and the chief minister of Pakistan’s largest province, described the military-backed caretaker government’s conduct of elections as “naked rigging.” League workers have been arrested en masse. Twitter is filled with testimony from those who claim to have seen the authorities tear down the party’s campaign material while leaving Khan’s in place. Candidates have been intimidated. Khan’s opponents are denied permission for rallies.

The media environment is also anything but free. Pakistan’s most respected newspaper has had its circulation informally curtailed, leading its owner to write in the Washington Post of an “unprecedented assault” on the freedom of the press. Military officials have openly identified individual journalists as threats to national security; others have been kidnapped and assaulted.

Self-censorship, out of fear, is now the norm. The country’s most watched cable network, Geo, was forced off air after cable operators received calls telling them to cut off the station. When asked by whom, one operator told Reuters: “I can’t say the name, you know, Big Brother, the boots.” Geo stayed off air till it promised to change its political coverage. In a deal with the military, Geo reportedly agreed to be more supportive of the “establishment” and the Supreme Court, and to attack Sharif.

If, after all this, Khan wins the election, it’s hard to imagine his government will be seen as legitimate. Another administration suffering a crisis of credibility is the last thing Pakistan needs. The army may still be Pakistan’s most respected institution. But I suspect that, in years to come, the generals will rue their decision to take on Sharif.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.