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What it means for democracy

Published Dec 17, 2012 12:20am


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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.


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The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (9) Closed

Mustafa Razavi Dec 17, 2012 11:16pm
Every law restricts a freedom, the pro-West cabal is only fooling the world by beating the drums of democracy and the rule of law simultaneously.
Dr. Qazi Dec 17, 2012 03:31pm
Dear Ms. Yusuf, Thanks for discussing one of the worst ills, afflicting our nation. Corruption coupled with poverty is dragging us down this ever deepening abyss of death and destruction. This is why addressing corruption (as you pointed out) must be done with seriousness and steely resolve. However we must realize that corruption and its twin sister poverty are not the diseases unto themselves but mere symptoms of an obsolete economic system that existed 100s of years ago but we continue clinging to it. If (and that is a big if) we somehow magically move (for example) our businesses, our tax system, our land management system etc. to modern day 21st century, I assure you that many facets of corruption will automatically go away. off course then the question would be "Who will bell the cat". Regardless of this, our intellectuals (like yourself) must shy away from the current approach to corruption and start suggesting solutions. Thank you
Mustafa Razavi Dec 17, 2012 04:33pm
I cannot imagine that there are 32 countries more corrupt than us, I would be hard pressed to name 10. I believe that we get a much better rating than we deserve because these Western organizations are keen to malign the the opponents of the West like Venezuela, Cuba, Zimbabwe, Iran and N. Korea. On the light side, there is joke from a few years back that goes, we are actually the corruptest country, we got a better rating by bribing Transparency International.
Tribal Manto Dec 17, 2012 03:04pm
I am 30 years of age and i have been covering Pakistani politics since 1988. Democracy is an anathema to Pakistan. It won't get its root here. The most of the onus and responsibility lies on the shoulders of civilians. but, they are illiterate and lack political vision. they dance to the tunes of personality cults. Corruption can't be rooted out because those who supposed to be crusaders against this drive, are more corrupt than those against whom they want to launch this crusade. To quote a Chinese proverb the fish is rotten from its head. so if you want to eliminate corruption then get serious and start it from the echelons of powers, and that must be above board.
Rao Dec 17, 2012 02:42pm
I am told Pakistan has a better Corruption ranking than that of India.
khalidmurad1 Dec 17, 2012 07:18pm
Ms. Huma! The best way to flourish your democracy to kill all the people and sell their bones and meat. That is what is now left in Islami Jamhuria Pakistan, introvert, passive, hungry, naked people; sell their kidney, heart, eyes and purchase votes and constituencies to flourish your democracy.
Cyrus Howell Dec 17, 2012 08:14pm
Democracy means Freedom. Nothing more and nothing less than that. Only total freedom is legislated.
M R Khawaja Dec 17, 2012 04:47pm
I saw my sister in law who is 80 years plus with her family just returned after visiting her brother in hospital in mirpur AK with serious heart problem what happened at airport rawalpindi/islamabad. 1.Enter the airport with suit cases asked to open them for inspection there is nothing but clothes they said no you have to open but if you look after us you do not have to open paid 1500.00 PKR next stage another point oh where you are going we have to check your suit cases but they are being looked in to no that is different paid them 500.00 pkr 3rd point same story paid 1000.00 PKR three checking cost 3000.00 pakistani rupees. Wait the man who brought suit cases in got to be paid in case we run away cost 1500.00 rupees Can you imagine 80 years old with family on wheel chair having to face pakistani culture of corruption. Even God can not help these people and country.
Dr. Qazi Dec 20, 2012 05:28pm
Everyone! Please note that Ms. Huma is discussing "Perception" that may or may not be an exact equivalent to the reality. Off course the current ruling party has a perception of being corrupt. I am sure if some one else is elected next year and he/she has a better perception, we'll all see our country's ranking will improve. So focus on bringing up rulers who are "perceived" to be less corrupt than the current set. Thank you