Pakistan's Supreme Court disqualified Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif from office July 28 for failing to disclose his role as chairman of Dubai-based firm Capital FZE when filing nomination papers for office in 2013. The judgment was part of the court's review of the recently concluded Joint Investigation Team's report into Sharif's finances, triggered by the Panama Papers leaks in April 2016. The courts also ousted Sharif's finance minister, Ishaq Dar, and ejected Sharif's son-in-law, Muhammad Safdar, from his seat in the lower house of parliament.
Sharif has failed to finish his term as prime minister before. During his first term in 1993, a power struggle between him and President Ghulam Ishaq Khan ultimately compelled Chief of Army Staff Gen. Abdul Waheed to intervene and request both men to resign. During Sharif's second term in 1999, Chief of Army Staff Gen. Pervez Musharraf toppled him in a coup, ushering in a volatile era for Pakistani politics that included a domestic insurgency stemming from the war in Afghanistan; the assassination of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto; and Sharif's own eventual return from exile in 2007. Sharif subsequently clinched a remarkable comeback in 2013, as the first person in Pakistan's history elected as prime minister three times.
His ouster comes at an important moment in Pakistani politics. Pakistan's economy has grown at a rate of over 5 percent and the country's gross domestic product surpassed $300 billion this year even as the country continues to wrestle with the intransigent problem of militancy. Sharif, meanwhile, oversaw the launch of the China-Pakistan-Economic-Corridor (CPEC), a $62 billion network of energy and infrastructure projects aimed at tackling the country's persistent electricity shortages and aiming to fundamentally transform the economy.
Pakistan's politically powerful army (which has ruled the country for 33 of its 70-year history) has distanced itself from the trial, focusing instead on anti-militancy operations, including most recently in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas' Khyber Agency. The army is unlikely to take over the government, especially considering it has a significant amount of influence over Pakistan's foreign policy. The army, however, views itself as the arbiter of last resort and may be willing to assert itself if the country's politics become too fractious.
Then there is Imran Khan. The leader of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, Khan spearheaded the campaign against Sharif over the Panama Papers and will claim a moral victory. But Khan is facing his own proceedings in the Supreme Court. It is also uncertain if Khan can translate this momentum into votes in Punjab, where Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) remains dominant.
Sharif will remain an influential force in Pakistani politics, but the PML-N will work on nominating a successor to complete the remainder of his term through 2018. Possible successors include: Shahbaz Sharif, brother to the ousted prime minister and the chief minister of Punjab, Pakistan's most populous province and political heartland; Khwaja Asif Muhammad, the minister of defense and a PML-N stalwart; and Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, the speaker of the lower house of parliament. Regardless of outcome, the response by Pakistan's political system to the aftermath of Sharif's ouster will offer a critical appraisal of Pakistan's democratization effort.