Pakistan does not have a tradition of political parties that survive for long on the basis of their ideas. Every few years a new political party, mostly on the right, emerges with encouragement from the permanent establishment, dominated by the military. A revolving set of turncoats and some new defectors from other parties promptly join this new king’s party. It is then fiercely pitched against the party with the largest vote bank at that particular juncture.
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) came to power in 2013 with the largest share of votes. The cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan and his Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (P.T.I.) party seem to be playing the part of the king’s party, trying to unseat Mr. Sharif by using the Panama Papers’ revelations of graft and money laundering against Mr. Sharif and his family. A subsequent court-ordered probe, which included investigators from Pakistan’s all-powerful intelligence agencies, has delivered a scathing report against the Sharifs.
Here’s how to get filthy rich in Pakistan: manipulate the law, get bank loans written off, use irregular accounting practices, evade tariffs and taxes and exploit labor. Mr. Sharif and his family are no different from others who are filthy rich, some of whom have joined Mr. Khan’s P.T.I.
The Election Commission of Pakistan and a court are also scrutinizing the allegations of misappropriation against Mr. Khan, including that of foreign funding for his party, which is illegal under Pakistani law.
Though Mr. Khan may be shamefaced for his soft stance on terrorist groups, he is not in the league of Pakistan’s filthy rich and does not have a reputation for large-scale financial corruption. Yet there are doubts about the motivation and outcome of his campaign against Mr. Sharif and increasing fears that Mr. Khan’s P.T.I. is the latest version of the king’s party.
These doubts and fears appear because there are no evident signs of a break from an old, familiar pattern. Mr. Khan founded the P.T.I. in 1996, and it became a club of well-meaning middle-class professionals inspired by the raw sincerity that Mr. Khan exuded. This has changed dramatically in the past six years, with his adversaries making obvious references to his party’s garnering the support of bureaucracy, military and intelligence agencies.
At present, the right-leaning P.T.I. represents a sizable minority of the affluent urban middle class. It has welcomed turncoats and defectors from other parties, many with a history of corruption and wrongdoing. It has been agitating for Mr. Sharif’s removal through nonelectoral means for the past few years. Panama Papers leaks have only intensified its demand.
The despairing history of king’s parties in Pakistan began in 1955 with the formation of the Republican Party. Pakistan was then divided into two parts, flanking India in the east and the west. The Republican Party was formed at the behest of the bureaucracy and military in West Pakistan to demand an unfair parity with the more populous East Pakistan, in terms of representation in legislature and allocations of economic support. The seeds of injustice sowed by the Republican Party, our first king’s party, culminated in the secession of East Pakistan in 1971. It became Bangladesh.
The Republican Party dissolved in 1958, three years after its formation, when Gen. Ayub Khan imposed martial law. A few years later, General Khan formed his own political party to wear the pretense of democracy while running the country. General Khan’s political party disintegrated soon after he left the office.
A pattern was established. After every coup, the new ruling general would encourage the formation of a new party, inviting and accepting mostly conservative politicians. The party would work hard to bring a facade of legitimacy to the general. It would disintegrate or disappear as soon as the general left the scene.
In July 1977, General Zia-ul-Haq captured power, then decimated the ruling Pakistan Peoples Party and later hanged its leader and the prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. The general formed a party. After falling out with the man he chose to run it, General Zia encouraged Nawaz Sharif, a leader of his party and the chief minister of Punjab, to lead his own faction. The Sharif faction later became the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz).
A chaotic decade — from the late 1980s to the late 1990s — followed General Zia’s mysterious death in a plane crash. Benazir Bhutto’s P.P.P. and Mr. Sharif’s P.M.L.N. were in and out of power. That was the time when Mr. Sharif played into the hands of the military to destabilize Ms. Bhutto’s popularly elected government. Mr. Sharif did to Ms. Bhutto what Mr. Khan is doing to him.
Mr. Sharif became prime minister a second time in 1997, but his relationship with the military establishment had turned sour. In 1999 Mr. Sharif tried to sack his army chief, Gen. Pervez Musharraf, but was instead removed in a coup.
Mr. Sharif was jailed after being charged with corruption and treason and was later sent into exile. In 2002, General Musharraf conjured up a new king’s party, which disintegrated with his resignation in 2008. Democracy was restored.
The Supreme Court of Pakistan has legally sanctioned every military coup in the country. The few judges who objected to such interventions were made to retire. It has endorsed the removal of elected governments and has sentenced one elected prime minister to death and disqualified another. Every democratically elected government has been removed on charges of corruption and incompetence.
The present case against Mr. Sharif will be seen as just if it leads to accountability for all: civil service, military, judiciary and big business, including those who flank Mr. Khan. If it is aimed solely at disqualifying Mr. Sharif, then there will be no rupture from our checkered past. A few years later Pakistan might see a new carriage for all the king’s horses to pull and all the king’s men to jump on.
Harris Khalique, a poet and essayist, is the author of Crimson Papers: Reflections on Struggle, Suffering and Creativity in Pakistan.