Sharif was not convicted of corruption, which would have required a criminal trial. He may not face prison time, and will hold on to his allegedly ill-gotten wealth—he has only been forced to leave the office of the prime minister. After the court found that he had not satisfactorily accounted for his wealth, it invoked a vague and overbroad morality clause in the constitution that says leaders must be “truthful” and “trustworthy.” It’s the first time that the clause, introduced during the Islamizing military rule of General Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, has been used against a holder of public office in Pakistan.
The ruling sets a troubling precedent. Sharif’s most determined opponent is the former cricketer turned politician Imran Khan. From the moment Sharif returned to power in 2013, Khan has been campaigning for his removal, often taking to the streets for weeks of protests. But even Khan has criticized the morality clause in the past, not least when people have tried to use it against him. “Only an angel,” Khan said, could be deemed to meet the clause’s exacting standards.
In Pakistan, politicians have long courted allegations of venality. They never occupy their official residences in Islamabad for long, and yet many of them emerge with suspiciously deep pockets. The arbitrary nature of their rule, long resistant to transparency, gives them control of government contracts, the power to disburse other forms of patronage, and, in the most crude of cases, demand an “administrative fee” for even the most perfunctory pieces of government business. In more recent years, members of parliament, ministers, and other politicians, have become more innovative—using a series of shell companies, frontmen who work through shadowy middlemen, and secret auctions, where bids are privately entertained, before lucrative contracts are announced.
Jahangir Tareen, a reputedly “clean” businessman-turned-politician who has vigorously campaigned for Sharif’s dismissal, last year admitted to indulging in a bit of insider trading. In 2005, while serving as a minister, Tareen took over a rival sugar mill. While the deal was being finalized, he opened trading accounts in the name of his cook and gardener, buying stocks in the sugar mill he was set to acquire. Tareen was ultimately forced to return the profits he earned, but still insists he did nothing wrong.
In 2008, when democracy returned to Pakistan, I interviewed a freshly appointed minister at his office in Islamabad. I had a list of questions about how he was preparing to serve Pakistanis. When I arrived, I found he had already gotten down to business. A queue of supplicants was positioned strategically outside his office door, and ran down the hall. Inside, he was busily signing slips of paper, apparently handing out jobs in exchange for political support. Other ministers arrived, carrying files of their own. Then a member of his party walked through the door, a young woman on each arm. “Sir,” he bellowed, “these are two of my greatest supporters. They’ll make fine air hostesses.”