x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Pakistan crisis of corruption is not just the PPP

Regardless of who wins the upcoming election, corruption in Pakistan will not be cured without deep and pervasive reforms.

If Pakistan's prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, were to fall because of corruption charges, he would be the second to do so in seven months. The ruling Pakistan People's Party has certainly weathered its share of accusations this term, but then again every recent civilian government has. President Asif Ali Zardari earned his nickname, "Mr 10 per cent", for allegedly demanding commissions on government projects during the first term of his deceased wife, the former president Benazir Bhutto.

The pressure on Mr Ashraf has been double-edged. Earlier this week, the fiercely independent Supreme Court gave notice to an anti-corruption agency to arrest the prime minister on charges that he had accepted bribes while in a previous post. The anti-corruption chief yesterday defused that threat, for the time being, by saying that there was not enough evidence to support charges against Mr Ashraf.

That has not, however, blunted the second challenge to the PPP administration. The mounting demonstrations over the past couple of weeks, led by the politician and cleric Muhammed Ul Qadri, now bring tens of thousands of his supporters into the streets of Islamabad protesting against poverty and political corruption.

Pakistan's political culture is riddled through and through with nepotism, corruption and entitlement. Mr Zardari's administration has been thoroughly ineffective in addressing systemic graft, while at the same time frequently accused of corruption, but that is just business as usual in Pakistan. The systemic restraints - notably, the zamindari system that perpetuates feudal land ownership - have defied every effort at reform since independence.

Mr Ul Qadri's movement undoubtedly tapped a vein of justified resentment at the ill-gotten gains of the privileged elite, although protesting against poverty is akin to fighting for peace. This being Pakistan, however, there is also speculation about the proverbial "hidden hand" behind these protests, which might be the military or even the collusion of the Supreme Court. The military always has a hand in politics, but army chief Gen Ashraf Kayani has been a notable advocate of civilian rule in the past. In any event, the country has enough troubles without resorting to conspiracy theories.

If this government, with or without Mr Ashraf, survives until elections planned for April or May, it would be Pakistan's first civilian government to serve a full term. Regardless of which party (or general) succeeds it, Pakistan's plague of corruption will not be cured without deep and pervasive reforms.