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What it means for democracy

December 17, 2012

PAKISTAN’S latest ranking on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) — the country has gone from being the 42nd most corrupt in the world in 2011 to 33rd in 2012 — has come as little surprise.

The furore surrounding this revelation, on the other hand, has been more interesting. Chairman of the National Accountability Bureau (NAB) Fasih Bokhari has used the opportunity to declare that billions of rupees are lost daily in Pakistan owing to corruption, inefficiency and tax shortfall.

The PPP, meanwhile, has trashed the corruption allegations and formed a four-member committee to investigate charges that it claims are part of a pre-election media campaign to defame the party. What’s missing from this discussion are the implications of high levels of corruption in our fledgling democracy.

Academic literature has demonstrated that corruption soars in emerging democracies before falling once the democratic system is consolidated. This is because young democracies lack transparency, have few checks and balances and provide ample opportunity for rent-seekers to access public officials.

Moreover, the quick emergence of embattled political leaders, parliamentarians, empowered judges, media professionals and other players in the democratic set-up leads to confrontational relationships and creates a need for war chests with which stakeholders can win re-election or carve out space for themselves by other means.

In places like Pakistan, with its on-again, off-again approach to democratic rule, political actors also see democracy as a tenuous interlude and use their time in power to amass as many resources and dispense as much patronage as possible. It doesn’t help that corruption can be economically beneficial in emerging democracies; as institutions strengthen and regulations are drafted, corruption offers a way to sidestep bureaucratic obstacles and get things done (think of places like India and China where corruption is rife, but economic growth continues).

The fact that Pakistan is in the transitional phase when corruption rises is evident in the government’s reaction to corruption allegations. When pillorying the Transparency International rankings, Information Minister Qamar Zaman Kaira took the ‘but everyone does it’ approach: he pointed out that no country was able to maintain its TI ranking, and that two-thirds of the countries analysed obtained a score below 50 (meaning they are considered significantly corrupt), which indicates a global corruption problem.

Kaira also emphasised the poor rankings of neighbouring countries, implying that regional corruption is a greater concern than domestic graft. His defence recalled the infamous statement of a PPP minister who in 2009 claimed corruption as a right on a political talk show.

Research suggests that such shenanigans subside when democracy is more entrenched and all political stakeholders — governmental and non-governmental — accept democracy as the most appropriate way to govern. In this scenario, politicians know that they will eventually be exposed and held accountable by the system, and that corrupt practices will hurt their interests in the long run by rendering them unelectable.

This turning point generally occurs between four and 15 years after a genuine democratic transition has been initiated. It is in this context that last week’s corruption allegations should be taken most seriously: the continuing high reported levels of corruption suggest that, despite the fact that Pakistan is gearing up for a historic election, the political elite are still not fully convinced that democracy is here to stay.

This is ironic because last week’s debate on corruption is one of many indications that democratic cultures are taking root. After all, among other reasons for reports of soaring corruption are the emboldened media, increased public access to information and strengthening political institutions. (Notably, PPP’s decision to convene a committee to address corruption charges is an effort within the ambit of the political system, rather than a coercive, backchannel pushback; the fact that the move is an expression of faux outrage geared towards point-scoring in the months before an election should not reduce its value.)

Despite the tentative democratic gains of recent years, rampant corruption at this junction could still lead to more political instability resulting in a failure to consolidate democracy. Public disdain for the venal political elite could spur cultures of anti-incumbency, which could in turn destabilise the system as ruling elites seek to cling to power, by unconstitutional means if necessary, in order to continue financially benefiting from their tenure.

Opposition parties, in response, might increasingly use corrupt and undemocratic means to gain political power knowing the financial rewards it will bring.

Alternatively, the powers that be might aim to legalise corruption. Take the example of lobbying, which is often described as a form of controlled corruption in the US: businesses register as interest groups and approach political leaders with plans and requests. This doesn’t count as corruption since a transparent record of such transactions is maintained and made available upon request.

None of these are outcomes that Pakistanis should accept, primarily because academic research has also shown that the poor bear the greatest burden of corruption in society owing to their dependency on the government for social services such as education and healthcare. When corruption thrives, funds are diverted away from service delivery and into the coffers of the powerful, reducing both the quantity and quality of public service.

Ultimately, the blight of corruption in Pakistan should be addressed far more seriously and systematically than last week’s hue and cry allowed for, not only because of the impact of such practices on the country’s weak economy, but also because corrupt practices could undermine the maturation of Pakistani democracy.

The writer is a freelance journalist.