Islamabad, Pakistan — Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif appears poised to compete in the country’s February 8 legislative elections that could see him return to power, after the nation’s Supreme Court reversed its six-year-old verdict disqualifying politicians found to not be “honest and righteous”.
But while some analysts said that the top court’s Monday verdict helps balance the power scales between the political class and Pakistan’s dominant military establishment, others questioned its timing.
The majority 6-1 decision by a bench led by Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa overturned the Supreme Court’s own earlier judgment banning people from political participation for life if they are found guilty of a constitutional provision that demands that lawmakers have an upright moral character. The earlier judgment, the court said this week, “abridges the fundamental right of citizens to contest elections and vote for a candidate of their choice”.
Raza Ahmad Rumi, a political analyst, journalist and author, said that the verdict was “not only a reversal of miscarriage of justice, but more importantly, it is a clear acknowledgement of the mistake that was made in the past under the pressure of the then-military establishment leadership.”
Rumi, who is also the director at the Park Center for Independent Media (PCIM) at Ithaca College in the United States, added that the decision should not be only seen in the context of Sharif getting relief.
“This is a welcome development for the entire political class,” he told Al Jazeera. “Historically, we have seen that disqualification of politicians is used as a cudgel by Pakistan’s civil and military bureaucracy since the inception of this country in 1947, and it is one of the easiest methods to eliminate them from the political arena via misuse of disqualification laws,” he said.
Usama Khawar, a Lahore-based constitutional lawyer, also said that the Monday ruling would “remove the sword of Damocles” hanging over politicians who fall out of favour with the military establishment.
Yet the biggest immediate beneficiary is Sharif. The then-prime minister was disqualified from office in July 2017 for violating the constitutional requirement for parliamentarians to be “honest and righteous”, after he was shown to have hidden his assets.
Subsequently, in April 2018, a five-member bench of the Supreme Court led by then-Chief Justice Saqib Nisar ruled in a separate case that disqualifications like the one imposed on Sharif stand for life. Sharif, who served as prime minister twice in the 1990s, and was in the midst of a third term starting in 2013 when he was disqualified, was arrested and sent to jail days before the 2018 elections.
His archrival Imran Khan, who led multiple demonstrations against Sharif on allegations of corruption, emerged victorious in those elections. Khan’s critics said the victory was made possible by help from the country’s powerful military establishment, which allegedly worked towards removing Sharif.
Now those roles — and the allegations — have been reversed. Sharif’s critics say he is the beneficiary of the military’s support. No Pakistani PM has ever managed to complete their tenure, while the military has directly ruled the country for more than three decades.
Khan, the former cricketer-turned-politician, was himself ousted in April 2022 through a parliamentary vote of no confidence. He is currently imprisoned on charges of corruption and leaking official state secrets. Khan blames a US-led conspiracy, in collusion with the Pakistani military, for his ouster and legal troubles.
Meanwhile, Sharif, who was in jail till November 2019 before he was allowed to fly to the United Kingdom on account of his ill health, stayed there for four years, before returning in November last year.
Aasiya Riaz, joint director of the independent political think-tank the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (PILDAT), said that it did appear that Sharif’s return was conditioned on a commitment from the military that legal cases against him would be dropped — as has happened.
But she pointed out that Sharif himself had been the victim of the army’s ire previously.
Asad Rahim Khan, a constitutional lawyer, said the judgement would have been “the reversal of a historical wrong if an empowered parliament had amended the Constitution.” The country’s political history, she said, showed that Pakistani politicians needed to band together in order to truly strengthen the country’s democracy.
“The right to an opposition, the centrality of parliament, and the need for governments serving out their complete, five-year tenures are points to unite on,” the Lahore-based lawyer said. “If they don’t, they will continue being picked off one by one via the deep state.”