By Aamir Latif
KARACHI, Pakistan (AA) – It seems as if the worst is not over for the Sharif family, which has occupied prominent political offices in Pakistan for nearly three decades.
With three-time premier Nawaz Sharif and his daughter and political heir Maryam Nawaz out on bail last month, analysts had speculated that the situation would cool down.
But the arrest of Shehbaz Sharif, opposition leader of the National Assembly and head of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) party, has set tongues wagging again.
Shehbaz Sharif, the younger brother of Nawaz Sharif, was arrested by the anti-corruption watchdog National Accountability Bureau (NAB) in the northeastern city of Lahore on Friday for allegedly canceling a contract for a low-cost housing scheme and awarding it to his preferred company.
The latest move — a blow to the main opposition PML-N a week before the by-elections — has also raised serious questions.
The Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government led by Prime Minister Imran Khan and the anti-corruption authorities claim that the former chief minister has caused “millions of rupees” in losses.
Shehbaz Sharif denies the charge saying he, in fact, cancelled the contract because it had been awarded to a company blacklisted by the authorities.
“This all was coming, and very much expected because Shehbaz was the one who had kept the party intact despite Nawaz Sharif's disqualification and other odds,” Zahid Hussain, an Islamabad-based political analyst, told Anadolu Agency referring to the three-time premier’s disqualification in the Panama Papers scandal, which subsequently led to a 10-year jail term slapped by an accountability court in July this year. A high court later suspended the sentence.
Hussain, author of bestseller “The Scorpion’s Tail”, gives weight to the PML-N’s complain about “selective justice”.
“Yes, the complain has weight. Apparently, the PML-N is NAB's target. Its two key leaders — Nawaz and Shehbaz — have been ousted from the political scene, at least for the time being,” he said.
Haq Nawaz, another Islamabad-based political commentator, sees the latest arrest as move which can easily be classified as political victimization.
“This act will have serious repercussions for the Imran Khan-led government whose slogan was justice for all and across the board accountability. But so far only one family is being targeted,” Nawaz told Anadolu Agency .
“Shehbaz’s arrest is a clear message to the Sharif family that it’s not over yet for them.”
– Timing of arrest
Rana Qaisar, a senior journalist from Islamabad, agrees that the timing of Shehbaz’s arrest is odd.
“We can talk about the timing but it could be a coincidence. I do not see it as a deliberate or targeted action," Rana said while speaking to Anadolu Agency.
Analysts, however, appear to be wary about the reasons which led to Shehbaz Sharif's arrest.
“Shehbaz’s arrest will certainly not only add to the confusion in politics but also fuel political confrontation,” Hussain observed.
He doubted if the establishment — a term coined to denote the powerful military that has ruled the country for half its history and is accused of meddling in politics — had devised a strategy to further attack the PML-N.
"It is more of a case in which something you start goes out of your hand," he said.
"The government has activated the NAB, which in the past no doubt remained dormant. But it seems if the NAB is unleashed now, and is acting wherever it likes.
"No doubt, there have been corrupt practices in the country but canceling a contract and awarding it to another does not necessarily mean its corruption," he added.
Despite making tall claims NAB often fails to produce evidence and convince the court, he said.
The Islamabad High Court last month declared NAB evidences insufficient to sentence Nawaz Sharif.
Qaisar says the "sheer confusion" which surrounds politics in Pakistan will eventually lead to clarity.
Disagreeing that NAB was targeting the Sharif family, he said: "State institutions can operate independently as well. Why do we always doubt their integrity?"
Established by former military ruler Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2000, NAB has often been accused of targeting anti-government politicians.
Analysts say with the two top leaders of the party embroiled in court cases, a serious crisis of leadership would emerge in the party. Also without Shehbaz Sharif, a crowd puller, the party is unlikely to perform well in the by-election on Oct. 14.
In the July general election the PML-N emerged as the single largest party in the Punjab province, its political stronghold. However, it failed to form a government in the province as PTI paired with smaller coalition partners.
The by-election could give the PML-N a second chance to win a simple majority in Punjab.
*Islamudddin Sajid has also contributed to this story from Islamabad