A file photo of Pakistan's former prime minister Nawaz Sharif at a news conference in Islamabad. Photo: Reuters / Faisal Mahmood

Invisible hands appear to be at work to manipulate the forthcoming election in Pakistan. The judiciary has sped up work on corruption cases pending against former prime minister Nawaz Sharif’s family and senior leaders of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), ahead of upcoming polls.

The Supreme Court on Sunday directed the country’s accountability court to decide the pending cases by July 10, which is just two weeks prior to the general election scheduled for July 25.

Leaders of PML-N contesting the forthcoming ballots, including the party president, face corruption cases in the court and the National Accountability Bureau. An adverse judgment could see the entire leadership of the party disqualified.

PML-N supremo Sharif is already barred from holding public office. His daughter Maryam Nawaz, who is contesting a seat in Lahore, is being prosecuted in a trial court, while her spouse Capt. Safdar also been tied to a case in the court. If the court decision goes against Nawaz and his children, it would be an electoral disaster for the PML(N).

Political analysts say the judiciary’s resolve to wrap up these cases before the election could force the party out of the process, leaving it wide open for pro-establishment forces.

The party has suffered successive blows since July 28 last year when a five-member bench of the Supreme Court disqualified Nawaz Sharif from holding public office in light of corruption revealed in the Panama Papers. The court had also ordered the Accountability Bureau to initiate legal proceedings against Sharif’s family.

Fast-tracked hearings

On Sunday, the Supreme Court ordered the accountability court to hear the graft cases six days a week, instead of five, and asked the trial court to determine the length of the hearings. Then, on Monday, Sharif’s main counsel Khawaja Harris conveyed to the court that he could not work under so much “pressure” and recused himself from the case.

“Despite the odds, hounding and harassment of PML-N Quaid [chief] Nawaz Sharif and his family, the party is going into the July 25 polls with high morale and with the sweet smell of victory in the air,” Senator Mushahid Hussain, chairman  of the party’s Central Media Committee and chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee, told Asia Times.

He viewed the “accountability” proceedings as a witch-hunt and said they could not deter the PML(N)’s confidence or popularity. “Our party has held despite pressures, our vote bank has increased, all opinion surveys put us as the winner by a wide margin, our detractors are confused as they stand exposed, our narrative of democracy – respect the sanctity of votes – and development – delivery to the people through performance in the past five years – has growing popular resonance, and despite all the shenanigans, our party leadership remains unbowed,” Hussain said.

Meanwhile, a highly placed source in the Accountability Bureau said it had substantial evidence against a dozen frontline leaders of the ruling PML-N and investigation was underway to determine the amount of damage caused to the exchequer.

He said complaints against these politicians had already been verified and the Bureau would decide their fate within the next few weeks. He noted that if individuals were found to have been involved in corrupt practices, they could be arrested before the election process begins.

PML-N leaders who run the risk of such action include former federal ministers Saira Afzal Tarar, Riaz Hussain Pirzada and Khawaja Saad Rafique. The Accountability Bureau has also summoned former Punjab chief minister and the party’s sitting president Shahbaz Sharif in connection with corruption in the Saaf Pani Company over a public sector water-purification and distribution project. 

The Bureau has also initiated investigations against PML-N Khyber Pakhtunkhwa president Ameer Muqam for accumulating wealth beyond his known sources of income.

But Senator Mushahid said: “This is a historic battle between the reactionary forces of the status quo and the popular forces of change which we represent. We’ve managed to turn the tables and the people believe our narrative. Try as they might, this coterie of conspirators, this clique of intriguers and this cabal of has-beens now is finally beginning to realize that the power of the ballot is paramount.” He suggested they were on the “right side of history” and that people had rejected the forces of the status quo.

“Nawaz Sharif and his daughter Maryam have attended around 100 hearings of the National Accountability Bureau court and they still are walking tall. I was in Interior Sind last month and met Gwadar Development Authority secretary-general Ayaz Latif Paleejo who told me that Nawaz Sharif is the most popular leader among the Sindhi masses, as he is courageous and defiant in the face of adversity, and he is a victim of injustice,” he said.

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