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Pakistan’s corruption conundrum

Updated Apr 24, 2013 04:54pm


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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.



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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 (17) Closed

bkt Apr 26, 2013 08:54pm

Who is the author of this article? In old not so beta Dawn, the name would appear loud and clear, but here we have no idea.

Wasif Apr 24, 2013 12:00pm
We do not have the presidential system of democracy - our president was elected by the parliament not the people - as much as mr. president would like to claim and people would like to believe
Ali Apr 25, 2013 01:40am
good article , you should write one with the title "nation above the law " and share with the reader's community about a place where everyone is above law .. be it from "establishment" , "politician" , "journalist" , "lawyers" , "doctors" .. you name it .. and when nation is above the law as it is told in Quran .. like the people will be the rulers implemented on them .. all what we blame them is from the society nothing is from outside ..
thecardinals Apr 25, 2013 06:46am
Where there is a will there is a way. If ministers are not corrupt, bureacrats will not be corrupt. It's the ministers that compel the bureaucrats to be corrupt, by asking them to 'eat a little and let us eat a little'. Imran is right when he says he can finish major corruption in 90 days. I think it can be finished, as one has already said, in 90 minutes. But what is the guarantee that it will not take birth again after being finished once? The solution lies with the people. There must be a system and a process to educate the people to sacrifice their 'share' for the 'share' of everyone. That is, every leader must do things that are for the entire community and not for an individual or specific group. About every new project the people must be taken into confidence by their elected representative about how much money is being spent on what project and if the majority of people support it. And finally, as a friend said earlier, proven corrupt politicians must be hanged within 24 hours of being proven guilty. Corruption is worse than murder as it causes more damage than that.
Wasif Apr 24, 2013 11:58am
Excellent piece - very well analysed by yourself and the original prognosis on India by Milan Vaishnav reminds me very much of the thought process professed by M. J. Akbar relating to the "Nation Building Process" where time is the basic requirement for the development and evolution of a "national conscience" - which in turn would dictate our attitudes towards matters of corruption and personal piety. Several examples of such evolutionary outcomes can be evaluated. The USA on a political front absolutely denounces corruption by individuals in public office but nonetheless rates its Lobbying Firms in Washington DC. Whereas individually american citizens supports and practice extremely liberal standards of casual courtship; institutionally "family values" is considered a valid electoral issue and impeachment proceedings could have been instigated against the most popular president on account of a stained blue dress. Similar case studies emerge on examining the established democracies of developed world. I suppose even with the risk of a intermediate spike in corruption allegations and rumours going rife, it will be the delivery on ground by the next elected government that would determine their popularity or otherwise - let's see.
Majid Apr 24, 2013 10:01am
As far as Pakistan is concerned, the benchmark for corruption has already been set by Zardari as he proudly confirmed that he was people's choice for the presidency. It can only get worse and not better in future - all very democratically done, mind you. If "increased transparency and rapid economic growth" due to media awareness are exposing the thugs then I would expect the same public who chose them must insist on their removal. But the opposite seems to be happening and corruption is getting a new image of " blissful piety" these days.
cautious Apr 24, 2013 10:15am
Your a Democracy that elected a guy who had the nickname of Mr. 10% - anyone who is surprised that his govt was corrupt is naive. Equally important - your police and judicial systems are broke/corrupt and any attempt to fix "corruption" without fixing those two institutions first is doomed to failure.
Rashid Apr 25, 2013 02:59am
By Huma's formula Pakistan's economy grew the most in PPP's tenure, roads were built, jobs were created, we got self-sufficient in energy, .............
Kammi Kameen Apr 25, 2013 08:31am
Interesting hypothesis.
YMMIR Apr 24, 2013 09:30pm
we endorse the comment below pakistani people are corrupt because their is no room for honest in the society they live
Hanif Apr 24, 2013 11:00am
While the word corruption has been associated with democracy and politicians is apparently a fact but the analysis seems to be superficial. In fact the democratic set up has its own accountability system which eradicates corruption and its roots. If the set up is given a chance to take its course, it will refine to an extent where there will be no room for corrupt people. The national institutions have been so chronically corrupt that no matter which party comes into power, the institutions would continue with the malpractices. In fact the most powerful institution of the country which has been holding on to power directly or indirectly has been reportedly become more corrupt than any other institution in the country.
Parvez Apr 24, 2013 11:07am
Corruption is a human failing. The human in Pakistan will not change but what will force him into lower levels of corruption is to force the country to live within its means and not on loans from WB, IMF etc which are taken in the name of the people but are pocketed by our leaders in the form of corruption. Another effective way is to hang a known corrupt person in public ( no shortage there ) but fist one must find a brave judge to do the needful.
Raja Islam Apr 24, 2013 08:49pm
Any party that promises an end to corruption will lose the elections. The pakistani political arena thrives on corruption and the nation is a nation of the corrupt.
Hasnain Haque Apr 24, 2013 08:33pm
You are right Tahir. If the Ministers werent corrupt than that is 50% reduction within 90 minutes of a government being formed. Eliminating corruption is not difficult and no one can eliminate 100% corruption. However, what you have in Pakistan is not corruption but looting on mass with eveybody filling their trolies and when the police arrive they dont arrest but instead take their share from the looters.
Donkeydoda Apr 24, 2013 05:52pm
Huma Yousif, have you seen the report published by Dawn that showed the names of the journalist who accepted bribes and kickback from former regime? Your beloved Dawn is also included in that dirty list. Let's fix your own house first. I understand you are a blogger but let's not blog for a corrupt outfit.
Kausik Apr 24, 2013 09:11pm
excellent article covering the issue in the entire subcontinent.what is disturbing now is young people the future of both countries accepting corruption as a way of life and the philosophy that everybody is corrupt and the educated staying away from politics but trying to get away to USA or UK and the illiterate and poor selling votes for money and temporary benefits and the criminalized elements controlling politics contributing to cynicism but this is all part of growth process as mj Akbar says if you keep fundamentals sound then things improve
Tahir Khan Apr 24, 2013 06:58pm
Seriously, taking care of corruption is not such a big issue. All you need is a death penalty and political will to implement that.