By Husain Haqqani
July 11, 2018
Whatever their outcome, Pakistan’s general
election scheduled for July 25 is unlikely to change four fundamental
realities. First, Pakistan’s military-led establishment will continue to wield
effective power, drawing strength from allegations of incompetence and
corruption against civilian politicians. Second, civilian politicians will
continue to justify their incompetence and corruption by invoking the spectre
of military intervention in politics. Third, Jihadis and other religious
extremists will continue to benefit from the unwillingness of the military and
the judiciary to target them as well as the temptation of politicians to
benefit from their support. Fourth and finally, Pakistan’s international
isolation and economic problems, stemming from its ideological direction and
mainstreaming of extremism will not end.
The conviction of former Prime Minister
Nawaz Sharif by an accountability court last Friday has set the stage for him
to portray himself as the latest martyr for democracy. He has argued, as others
have done before him, that he is being punished not for corruption but for
standing up to Pakistan’s invisible government — the military-intelligence
combine that has dominated the country effectively since 1958.
His supporters are willing to ignore the
fact that Mr. Sharif’s own political career was launched by the Pakistan Army
and the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), and the likelihood that allegations
of unusual expansion of the Sharif fortune since the family’s advent in
politics are true.
Spotlight on the Judiciary
The conduct of Pakistan’s judiciary in the
matter has been far from judicious. The Chief Justice of Pakistan, Saqib Nisar,
views himself less as an adjudicator in accordance with the law and more as a
super policy maker. He has expressed interest in everything — from water
scarcity to running of mental hospitals and prisons. He has taken to touring
various government facilities and has even created a fund for the construction
of dams. The fund will receive public contributions because the Chief Justice
knows the exchequer does not have enough money to build the dams he wants
None of these actions is part of a Chief
Justice’s job description, even after recognising that some judges are more
activist than others. Justice Nisar has made his political biases well known
and the case against Mr. Sharif proceeded in reverse order. Instead of
beginning in a trial court where evidence of his wrongdoing was established
beyond reasonable doubt, he was first disqualified by the Supreme Court and
then put on trial.
But perceptions and common knowledge of
political corruption cannot be a substitute for following legal principles.
Elsewhere in the civilised world, the Pakistani practice of accusing someone of
criminal conduct first in the highest court and then demanding that they prove
their innocence would be deemed grossly unjust. The fact that this happens only
in political cases further strengthens the view that politics, not corruption,
is at the heart of such ‘prosecutions’.
Moreover, the Supreme Court invited
representatives of the Military Intelligence and the ISI to help investigate
the money trail for Mr. Sharif’s alleged properties in London. This highly
unusual procedure itself casts doubt on the real motives behind the former
Prime Minister’s trial. The military-led prosecutions of politicians, even when
their malfeasance is well known, helps the politicians in building their case
that their political conduct is the source of their troubles.
Pakistan is, therefore, unable to hold the
politically powerful accountable through its politicised judiciary. The cynical
view of Pakistani politics would be that three decades ago the deep state
advanced Mr. Sharif’s political career while portraying Benazir Bhutto’s spouse,
Asif Zardari, as corrupt; now Imran Khan is the ‘chosen one’ while Mr. Sharif’s
alleged corruption is being targeted.
Problem with This ‘Narrative’
The military, which now refers to itself as
‘the institution’, has helped build a simplified narrative to justify its
constant intervention in political matters as well as to explain Pakistan’s
myriad problems. According to this narrative, civilian politicians are
incompetent and corrupt, which is the only reason the military needs to
periodically intervene to set things right. There is no explanation for how
politicians would ever learn the art of governance if they are to be constantly
corrected by unelected generals and judges.
Another part of ‘the narrative’ is the
notion that Pakistan’s dysfunction and periodic economic crises are the result
of the massive corruption by civilians. Imran Khan and his supporters have been
advancing that simplified narrative. Their message finds resonance with those
who want to believe that once kickbacks on large projects and their corrupt
practices are eliminated, Pakistan would somehow become the land of milk and
There is, of course, no justification or
excuse for corruption but Pakistan has been ill-served with the ‘corruption is
the only problem’ over-simplification. Since at least 1990, it has become an
excuse to gloss over more significant policy issues that hold Pakistan back.
Corruption has been exposed in many countries, from Iceland to China but none
of them is as dysfunctional as Pakistan.
Limiting national discourse to a discussion
of corruption makes it impossible for Pakistanis to discuss how jihadi ideology
and religious extremism are leading to Pakistan’s isolation. Similarly,
Pakistan’s slow growth in exports, for example, is hardly a function of corruption.
It reflects low productivity and inadequate value addition which are
consequences of poor human capital development and failure to attract
investment, among other factors.
Pakistan is the sixth largest country in
the world in terms of population, has the sixth largest army in the world, and
possesses one of the largest nuclear arsenals. Yet, it has the highest infant
mortality rate; more than one-third of its children between the age of 5 and 15
are out of school. The country’s GDP on a nominal basis ranks 40 out of nearly
200 countries while its GDP per capita stands at 158 out of 216 countries and
territories, according to World Bank data.
None of these facts, however, has found any
mention in the election campaign of any Pakistani political party. Although Mr.
Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N) and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s Pakistan
Peoples Party (PPP) have at least cared to publish detailed manifestos, Imran
Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) published its manifesto on Monday, July
9, less than 20 days before the election. The party feels it only needs Mr.
Khan’s charisma and the outrage against corruption or enemies of Pakistan to
claim voters’ loyalty.
The anti-corruption enthusiasm has
sometimes added to Pakistan’s economic woes. Pakistan is currently burdened
with compensation payments running into billions that must be made to foreign
companies whose contracts were cancelled as part of investigations into
corruption of officials involved in awarding those contracts. But fighting
corruption is a useful slogan if the deep state wants to avoid fighting all
jihadis and does not wish to acknowledge the flaws of its national narrative.
It is ironic that Mr. Sharif faces jail
ahead of an election that opinion polls indicate his party would win, if voting
was free and fair, even as a long list of internationally designated terrorists
is free to seek votes. That contradiction is at the heart of why the outcome of
the elections is unlikely to change any of the fundamentals of the Pakistan
crisis. If the PML-N overcomes all odds and still manages to win, the
corruption cases will continue to cast their shadow. If someone like Imran Khan
wins with the help of invisible hands, he would start his term under a
Pakistan will, unfortunately, not emerge
stronger after an election whose winner lacks credibility and whose loser is
likely to initiate confrontation with the winner right after polling day.
Husain Haqqani, Director for South and Central Asia at the Hudson Institute,
Washington DC, was Pakistan’s Ambassador to the U.S. from 2008-11. His latest
book is ‘Reimagining Pakistan’