Nawaz Sharif’s fate is out of his hands

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan held an angry, defiant news conference in London. A day earlier, militants had killed dozens of people in a double bombing in a Shia enclave in Pakistan’s tribal areas. Yet standing outside a posh Park Lane apartment building, the prime minister railed instead against a controversial investigation into his family’s wealth.

It was the prime minister’s first news conference since appearing before investigators nine days earlier, and neither the celebratory mood of an Eid weekend — Mr. Sharif was in London for a family holiday — nor the somber aftermath of the devastating bombings could shake his political focus.

Mr. Sharif denounced the corruption probe as a witch hunt. He assailed his fiercest rival, the opposition politician Imran Khan, for ceaselessly attacking him. And in the elliptical way many Pakistani politicians learn to master, he hinted that the military was trying to destabilize his government.

He said all this while standing outside the very source of his troubles, the Sharif family pied-à-terre in the Park Lane apartment building, near the iconic Speakers’ Corner in Hyde Park. In the family’s use for more than three decades, the “London apartments,” as they have come to be known in Pakistan, have been denounced for decades by Mr. Sharif’s opponents as the fruits of corruption.

On Monday, a team of investigators, including members of military intelligence agencies, delivered a stunning report against the prime minister and his children. It rejected the Sharifs’ explanations for how they have come to own the London apartments, and accused them of holding assets that cannot be explained by their known sources of income.

Mr. Sharif’s daughter Maryam, his likely political successor, is accused of having falsified documents she handed to investigators in order to hide the true ownership of the apartments. She was caught because the font used in those documents, Calibri, only became available to the public well after the time the papers were purportedly drafted.

Mr. Sharif’s political future is hanging by a thread and his daughter’s prospects are now in jeopardy, but the prime minister and his party, the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), appear to be in a fighting mood. They have denounced the court-ordered investigation, darkly suggesting that it is a conspiracy to oust Mr. Sharif ahead of the general election scheduled for next year — an election the PML-N has a realistic chance of winning.

No prime minister in Pakistan’s history has completed a five-year term; Mr. Sharif is on his third try and is less than a year away from marking this milestone. But as democracy and human rights advocates have warned, the closer he gets, the greater the pressure he faces.

Asma Jahangir, a leading human rights lawyer, tweeted recently:

Translation for non-Pakistanis: The political, democratic and constitutional order in Pakistan remains subordinate to the interests of the military.

For decades, the Sharif family has offered shifting explanations to deflect inquiries about the London apartments. Speculation dissipated after the family acknowledged actually owning them. Then last year the children became enmeshed in the Panama Papers dump: Information uncovered at the time contradicted the Sharifs’ previous explanations, triggering an outcry in Pakistan.

But the corruption probe has also been mired in controversy from its inception. The inclusion of military representatives in the investigation team is highly unusual and has been bitterly criticized. The investigators and the government have traded extraordinary allegations. Some investigators have accused a civilian intelligence agency under the control of the prime minister, the Intelligence Bureau, of spying on them; government allies have speculated that the Inter-Services IntelligenceDirectorate, the spy agency, and military intelligence services have been secretly aiding the investigation.

The backdrop for this are the perennial tensions in civil-military relations. Mr. Sharif only recently emerged from a bruising, monthslong struggle with the powerful military, and plenty of animosity remains.

The military opposes Mr. Sharif’s moves to normalize ties with India and fears he wants to roll back the military’s privileged, praetorian position inside Pakistan. Mr. Sharif, for his part, has chafed at being excluded from vital national security and foreign policy decisions. He may also fear that the military is trying to undermine his popular support.

And then there is the enmity with Imran Khan, the leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party and Mr. Sharif’s main political rival. Mr. Khan has spent much of the past four years trying to bring down the government of Mr. Sharif by relentlessly attacking the prime minister over corruption allegations.

Mr. Khan eagerly seized on the Panama Papers, and soon after their release threatened to march on the capital, Islamabad, with his supporters and lock down the city in protest. It was that prospect that finally drew a reluctant Supreme Court into taking on the Panama Papers issue, unleashing a chain of events that culminated in this week’s devastating report against Mr. Sharif and his children.

Mr. Khan masks his political opportunism by harping on the same point: If the London apartments were obtained legally, why can’t the Sharifs produce the money trail? Draw your own conclusion, he seems to be suggesting to the public.

And yet the most plausible response to that question may be one that the Sharifs can’t state publicly. In a country where the rich routinely avoid taxes, money is frequently spirited in and out, laws are regularly flouted and few questions are ever asked of the wealthy and the politically connected, what sin have we, the Sharifs, committed that others have not? Why are we being singled out?

For three reasons, at least. Mr. Sharif dislikes the military (and is disliked by it). He remains the favorite for the next election. And his fondness for those London apartments has blinded him to the political peril they pose.

Mr. Sharif’s fate is now out of his hands. His party and the government have vowed to support him, but it is the Supreme Court that will make the final decision. The next set of hearings is scheduled to begin Monday. And so goes another Pakistani political crisis, simultaneously bewildering and familiar.

New York Times