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Pakistan’s corruption conundrum

Updated April 24, 2013

Corruption has been the byword of the PPP-led coalition government’s recently concluded term. President Asif Zardari spent much of the past five years dodging the Supreme Court’s efforts to reopen corruption cases against him. When the game cost him one prime minister, he brought in the ignominiously monikered Raja Rental, accused of taking kickbacks during the public procurement of rental power plants. And these are only the two most obvious examples from a term littered with accusations of bribery, kickbacks, secret funds, missing containers, Hajj and drug scams, mysterious suicides by NAB officials, and more.

Not surprisingly, most parties hopeful of seizing power after the elections have promised to eliminate corruption. Imran Khan has backed up his vow to eradicate corruption within 90 days of coming to power by littering the PTI manifesto with accountability mechanisms, including plans to pursue past mega-scandals, asset recovery and an independent and prosecutorial arm for NAB. The PML-N manifesto, too, calls for an autonomous accountability commission to stem corruption. MQM has championed the fact that there are no corruption cases pending against any of its ministers.

But as polling day approaches, parties would do well to cool off on the anti-corruption rhetoric. This is because, irrespective of which coalition comes to power on May 11, corruption levels in Pakistan are likely to soar in coming years. Any government that wins votes on an anti-corruption mandate will thus find itself – and the democratic set-up as a whole – thoroughly discredited in the public eye.

There are many reasons to expect short-term increases in corruption. First off, the process of political devolution, which is not yet functionally complete, will lead to misappropriations at the provincial level as poorly trained bureaucrats start to get their hands on big chunks of change. Thanks to decentralisation, the public will feel the impact of such corruption more urgently, as they will witness their local MPAs get even richer as roads and sewers remain unbuilt.

Other causes for soaring corruption in young democracies were well outlined by Milan Vaishnav in a recent article about India. He argues that apparent increases in corruption across the border are the product of “positive developments: increased transparency and rapid economic growth.” This argument is equally, if not more true, for Pakistan.

In recent years, Pakistan’s media has become emboldened, and hesitates less before exposing scandals. This is because of improved journalistic capacity and the greater independence of media outlets as well as their increased politicisation. It has become de rigueur for politicians and clashing institutions to undermine their rivals by leaking incriminating evidence – often corruption-related – to the media. As media houses proliferate and become more partisan, such practices are likely to escalate, amplifying the perception that corruption is on the rise.

Moreover, the empowered judiciary (which did not hesitate this week to release a list of journalists who received payouts from the government’s ‘secret fund’) coupled with bodies such as the Public Accounts Committee and NAB will continue to bring more corruption cases to light. Some of these will be genuine, others politically motivated. But that’s besides the point, which is simply that the Pakistani public should brace to be assailed by stories of venality like never before.

This will especially be the case if Pakistan’s next government genuinely seizes the task of revamping the country’s economy. Economic growth is driven by big energy projects, privatisation of state enterprises, foreign investment deals, public procurement, and the granting of licenses for mining, natural resource exploration and other extractive industries. In other words, economic growth hinges on deals that lend themselves to profiteering and kickbacks – exactly the kind of deals that our government bureaucracy is not transparent nor institutionalised enough to handle without significant increases in corrupt practices. As in India, Pakistan is likely to see a new era of government collusion with big industry (and resulting corruption) in the name of economic growth.

Moreover, a new government with new ideas on how to counter extremism or tackle Pakistan’s education emergency may see new windfalls in the form of donor funds. These too will be increasingly vulnerable to misappropriation as they trickle through new hands at the provincial and district levels.

Ironically, for all its disdain for venal politicians, the electorate will also be complicit in the short-term spike in corruption. Vaishnav cites research that suggests that Indian voters support politicians with a reputation for corruption because “criminality is often viewed as a signal of a politician’s ability to get things done, especially for his or her parochial community.” It seems likely that this is true of Pakistan as well, particularly as news reports flow in of voters lining up to support those politicians who secured the most development funds for their constituency or those who can be counted on to take care of their biradari (with few asking whether the resources were obtained through fair means or foul).

Speaking to Dawn, PML-N’s Ahsan Iqbal recently pointed to this reality when he explained that in the evolving context of rural politics, “no one person, not even two, three or five people sometimes can deliver a UC. Everyone wants direct access to their representative. There is awareness.” That ‘awareness’ is code for: I want my share too. As historic as the 2013 elections will be, they will be contested on old rules of patronage politics. Having won votes on the basis of dharras and biradaris, politicians will be forced to deliver using the familiar tricks of corruption and cronyism.

For a country as new to democratic practice as Pakistan is, it is unfair to expect voters to adopt long-term thinking in favour of institution-building rather than revel in the immediate gratification of backing winning candidates and enjoying short-term service delivery. As such, Pakistan’s corruption conundrum – the fact that democratic consolidation will inevitably lead to more frequent incidences of graft – should be seen as an opportunity, and the start of a process.

But by making these upcoming polls about quick fixes to root out corruption, Pakistan’s politicians risk leaving the electorate disillusioned. After all, the average Pakistani is sick of corruption in every sphere of life (hence the thousands who braved freezing temperatures and rainfall in January to support Tahirul Qadri’s anti-corruption rants). Promise to eradicate corruption, and then fail to do so, will have many voters likely to start questioning the merits of a system that cannot deliver.

The point here is not to normalise or excuse corruption. But without acknowledging the reality that it must increase before it decreases, our political parties are gearing to disappoint voter expectations – a dangerous strategy in a country where too many actors are waiting in the wings, eager to see democratic parties undone once again.


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Huma Yusuf is a columnist for Dawn, and was the 2010-11 Pakistan Scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C.