The three-year itch

Updated 24 Oct 2020

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RECENTLY, The Guardian ran a two-page article chronicling the details of the UAE president’s vast property portfolio in London.

The daily made it clear that there was “no suggestion of any wrongdoing, and owning property in the UK through shell companies is perfectly legal”. Even The Guardian has to cover its back from legal action when exposing the rich and powerful. Incidentally, these facts first emerged during its investigation of the Panama Papers in 2016. This is the same leak that sealed Nawaz Sharif’s political fate.

As far as I know, the media in the UAE — hardly an example of hard-hitting investigative journalism — has been remarkably quiet. No judge has dared to issue a suo motu notice. And citizens have not poured out into the streets.

Donald Trump has committed so many acts verging on corruption that they can’t be counted here without running out of space. For starters, he has handed over hundreds of millions to friends in the pharmaceutical industry to develop anti-Covid vaccines without competitive bids. Nevertheless, he still has a fighting chance to win a second term.

Allegedly corrupt rulers have continued to get elected.

In the UK, Boris Johnson approved a proposal for a walkway across the Thames from the well-known actress Joanna Lumley without serious discussions with Londoners and the government that was supposed to part-fund the project. The architect, too, was signed up without a competition, the normal procedure in government contracts. Johnson was the mayor of London then, and whiffs of corruption still fill his CV like a bad smell. And yet he has gone on to become the prime minister.

There are many other examples I could cite where allegedly corrupt leaders have continued to get elected despite apparent venality on a massive scale. Putin is reputed to be one of the richest men in the world, rising from a mere KGB operative.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish president, isn’t doing too badly, thank you very much. It was the leak of taped conversations purporting to detail his family’s money-making ways that caused him to part company with his ideological partner, Gulen. Hizmet, his vast global network of schools and other social service institutions, has been under attack since then. The schools run by Hizmet in Pakistan were shut down after the crackdown. This split caused an attempted coup in Turkey in which hundreds were killed, and thousands of alleged Gulenists sacked, jailed or await trial.

In most of these countries, however, even when corruption has been identified, the baby is not thrown out with the bathwater. Ultimately, the theory is that it is for the people to pronounce judgement in a free and transparent vote. Of course, elections are often rigged by corrupt leaders to protect their illegally acquired fortunes.

But Pakistan marches to the beat of a different drummer. Here, we have the three-year itch. Although the Constitution gives an elected government five-year terms in office, sections of the establishment, the judiciary, the media and the public all get fed up of the elected government’s performance after three years. Generals, of course, get to play far longer innings.

A campaign is unofficially launched, and drawing-room conversations are dominated by rumours of the latest scams. Instead of doing his or her job, the elected prime minister of the day is forced to concentrate on survival. For the last 30 years, this has been the pattern.

As president, Asif Zardari’s greatest achievement was to complete his term. Apart from pushing through the 18th Amendment transferring greater powers to the provinces, there was little he could do apart from fighting off the hostility of the elements mentioned. When he finally left office, I’m sure he heaved a sigh of relief.

Imran Khan is probably finding his prize goal of premiership a bit of a poisoned chalice. It’s one thing to shout vulgar abuse at opponents when in the opposition, quite another to actually solve Pakistan’s massive problems of unemployment, illiteracy and poverty. Oh yes, we can now add Covid-19 and inflation to the prime minister’s in-tray.

Luckily for him, some elements have been seen as fairly selective when it comes to deciding whose neck deserves the next trimming. A nod from the establishment can lead to the use of a simple device like an iqama to declare a sitting prime minister unqualified for public office and parliament.

Meanwhile, the ruling party is currently enjoying freedom from the activation of a law barring political parties from accepting funding from foreign sources. Time after time, the Election Commission of Pakistan has declared a deadline for the submission of data. These dates have passed without an explanation. If it is established that the PTI did indeed get foreign funding, the crudely constructed house of cards would come tumbling down.

irfan.husain@gmail.com

Published in Dawn, October 24th, 2020