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Sat 17 August 2019
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Faisal Khan on Pakistan’s long history of corruption and Imran Khan’s quest to tackle it.

Like most South Asian countries, Pakistan has long had a serious corruption problem dating back to its very inception in 1947. 

In many respects, the south Asian elite took over from the British in the exploitation, manipulation and ‘looting’ of its people. Corruption has long been a fact of life in Pakistan. Transparency International’s 2018 Corruption Perception Index, for example, ranked the country 117th out of 180 countries. 

The problem has been so severe that no civilian government has completed a full term since 1947 often due to corruption, with administrations being regularly replaced by military rule. However, the military establishment itself hasn’t been above reproach. For some, politics has been a means by which to enrich themselves.

Corruption – even if real – is effectively being weaponised for political purposes.

As the Pakistani writer Omar Wariach states: “In Pakistan, everything can be negotiated – the rules are rarely fixed. For the right price, through the right connections, or in return for a favour, you can get things done. Many politicians who enrich themselves rationalise their corrupt practices as somehow serving a noble purpose: they justify their actions claiming they are either helping out their constituents, their party, or even their own family.”

Widespread corruption can have a debilitating impact on a society. It can negatively impact a country’s development, it damages trust in state institutions, and it fuels poverty – which in turn reinforces corruption. According to the World Bank, the average income in countries with high levels of corruption is about a third of that of countries with low levels of corruption. Some studies indicate that high levels of corruption result in, amongst other things, monopolies, inefficient allocation of resources, uneven distribution of wealth, the creation of an informal/dark economy, lower levels of foreign investment and trade, and a lower quality of education and healthcare. 


Nawaz Sharif 

The release of the Panama Papers in 2016 proved a turning point for then Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and for Pakistan’s battle against corruption.

The papers revealed that, alongside other world leaders, the Sharif family had wealth stashed overseas that hadn’t been declared to the Pakistani people. This included high-end properties in London. 

Consequently, in July 2017, Nawaz Sharif was ousted and disqualified from holding public office by the Supreme Court, invoking a vague morality clause added to the constitution by the dictator General Zia in the 1980s, which emphasised that political leaders must be “truthful” and “trustworthy”.

Not all are convinced of the sincerity of Pakistan’s recent efforts to fight high-level corruption.

A year later, he was arrested on his return to Pakistan and handed a 10-year prison sentence because of his undeclared properties in London.

Given the timing of the sentence – days before a general election – and Nawaz Sharif’s increasingly strained relationship with Pakistan’s military, many suspected that the military establishment had played a role in ensuring the verdict. Indeed, that is what Sharif and his supporters contended.

Although he was released in appeal in September 2018, this was not the end of Nawaz Sharif’s corruption tribulations. In December of the same year, he was jailed by Pakistan’s anti-corruption court for seven years on the basis that he was unable to prove the source of income that led to his ownership of steel mills in Saudi Arabia. Again, his family and supporters cried foul. In recent days, his daughter has released a video purporting to show the judge in the case claiming he was ‘leant’ on to find Sharif guilty. The judge has dismissed the video as fraudulent. 


Asif Ali Zardari

The current Prime Minister Imran Khan has campaigned against corruption from his earliest entry into Pakistani politics in the 1990s.

Given he has personally never been involved in any major corruption scandal, he has significant credibility on the issue with the general public. He campaigned on a platform of holding the corrupt political elite accountable. In a recent speech, he declared that, even if it cost him his life, he would hold the ‘criminals’ who had fleeced the people of Pakistan accountable. In this respect, there was a convergence of interests between his government and the military establishment in tackling high-level corruption. 

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It is this effort that led to the arrest of former President Asif Ali Zardari last month after his bail application was rejected in connection with a high-profile money-laundering case in which millions were allegedly siphoned out of the country. Pakistan’s Supreme Court established a commission to investigate the claims, finding that at least $400 million (£316 million) had passed through “thousands of false accounts”.

Zardari is one of Pakistan’s most controversial political figures. He came to prominence when he married a scion of the Bhutto dynasty of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. As her Minister for Investment, he gained a notorious reputation as ‘Mr 10%’ due to his alleged corruption. He has been accused of criminality, including having a judge who was investigating him killed. He was also arrested and indicted for the murder of his own brother-in-law Murtaza Bhutto, for which he was acquitted in 2008 while he was the country’s President.

Murtaza Bhutto, on his return from exile to Pakistan in the 1990s, challenged his sister for control of the Pakistan’s People’s Party (PPP)on the grounds of her corruption. A judge who investigated his killing concluded that it likely involved the highest echelons of government and the then President disbanded the Bhutto government as a consequence. Fatima Bhutto-Murtaza’s daughter and Benazir’s niece holds Zardari personally responsible for her father’s murder.

The south Asian elite took over from the British in the exploitation, manipulation and ‘looting’ of its people.

Zardari went onto to spend 11 years in prison on graft charges. He was released in 2004 and became President in 2008, after his wife was assassinated. He denies the current allegations and like Nawaz Sharif, claims that they are ‘politically motivated’. 

However, the fight against the old establishment continues unabated. Shebhaz Sharif, Nawaz Sharif’s brother and former chief minister of Punjab, is also currently facing graft charges and, in recent days, Rana Sanaullah, a former Punjab minister of law, was arrested on drug trafficking charges. 


A Biased fight?

Not all, however, are convinced of the sincerity of Pakistan’s recent efforts to fight high-level corruption.

Michael Kugelman, of the Wilson Centre, told Byline Times that, although the Imran Khan’s PTI Government may convince itself that these arrests reflect a crackdown on corruption, “the fact that multiple senior leaders from rival political parties were arrested around the same time and, at time when a new austerity budget is making the PTI Government increasingly political vulnerable, one has to wonder if the timing of all this isn’t coincidental”. 

Similarly, the writer Raza Rumi said: “The arrest of Nawaz and Zardari is a result of a contentious and fractured accountability campaign… The key issue here is that Imran Khan has been promising accountability to his supporters, and he is ostensibly delivering on that promise. Both Nawaz Sharif and Asif Zardari are also on the ‘wrong side’ of the establishment, so there is a convergence of views. The manner in which it has been done has raised many questions. In the present political climate, the accountability process has many loopholes and gives a partisan impression. The biggest critique is that members of the ruling party are being treated differently.”

For now, at least, it would seem that Pakistan’s battle against corruption is a partial and lopsided one, where corruption – even if real – is effectively being weaponised for political purposes to target the political rivals of both Pakistan’s current PTI Government and the military establishment.

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