The issue of corruption was supposed to loom large in the July 25 election, but the process seemed to have gone farther than expected, with the disqualifications of former Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbassi and PTI spokesman Fawad Chaudhry for not being sadiq and ameen, and though they were restored to the contest, they were accompanied by an ex-minister and an ex-MNA being disqualified for contempt, as well as the arrest of the PML(N) candidate against party dissident Ch Nisar Ali Khan by the National Accountability Bureau in the Saaf Pani Company case.

The judiciary and the investigating agencies may well be neutral, but the accountability occurring has provoked ousted Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharif’s daughter Maryam to say that the PML(N) supporters should be targeted for that not other crimes, and prohibited from contesting elections anyhow. It might be noticed that the PML(N) is not the only party being affected by accountability, but while the PTI is next, the PPP has escaped so far.

It is also notable that while the PML(N) Punjab government is facing targeting, the PTI government in KPK and the PPP government in Sindh have not faced any difficulties. It is not being propounded that the Saaf Pani Company was a service-delivery model, or that it was a vehicle for corruption. However, in both cases, it was an innovation, a departure from the past. The PTI and PPP were both stuck in the traditional forms of governance. It may also be noted that Punjab has the only outgoing Chief Minister vying for national power.

It is perhaps a reflection of the fact that the PML(N) was in office in the last tenure that it is now facing charges of corruption (or rather individuals within it are), but it also does seem to amount to the sort of pre-poll rigging against the outgoing government that has always been made. One result has been that no party has ever won national re-election. True, both the PML(N) and the PPP won re-election in Punjab and Sindh respectively in 2013, but those were in provinces. True, the PPP had won re-election in 1977, but that election was tainted enough for a movement to be launched against it and for Martial Law to be imposed.

In previous instances from 1988 onwards, it seems to have been enough to oust the government in mid-term for it to lose the ensuing election. This time around, the pattern seems to be emphasised even more strongly. The slogan of ‘Pehley ehtsab, phir intikhab’ (accountability first, then elections) goes back to 1977, being raised to justify both the postponement of elections and the trials by martial law courts of former public representatives for corruption.

Actually, the experience of corruption by the elected being used to justify military takeovers and dismissals of governments may now be wearing thin. That might explain why the PML(N) is not in greater disarray than at present. The problem is not of corruption, but of punishment of corruption. Ouster has not led to punishment. The PML(N) would like to argue that it has not been corrupt at all, but that would only increase the resentment at ouster, not change it in any way.

Corruption is a live issue, and resented enough by the common man to influence his vote. However, is it avoidable in the present system? The experience of other, older democracies says it is not. There have been too many scandals in the recent past involving corruption by politicians for one to assume that corruption is not specifically a Pakistani issue. It should be noted that while the Panama Papers affected Pakistan in playing a key role in Mian Nawaz’s ouster, its impact was worldwide, with other heads of government forced to leave office.

Once funny money comes into play, families come into play. The case against Mian Nawaz involves his children. The framing of charges against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife Sara involves her having ordered out: very often, and to the tune of vast amounts of taxpayers’ money. That shows how families can get used to living well. Elected representatives do receive taxpayers’ money, to enable them to concentrate on their office, rather than on earning a living. One of the problems with the present system is that elected representatives decide their own salaries and allowances. In the private sector, only owners decide their own compensation. Elected representatives, who come from the private sector, decide for themselves.

Indeed, they make all laws, in some of which they are personally interested. Legislators receive a salary, as well as extra amounts for travelling, not to mention free medicare. Yet they are free to continue their professional and vocational pursuits. For example, they can farm, or serve as members of boards of directors of companies, and receive dividends on shares they may own in them. Yet they can legislate on the tax rates of such companies. It is worth noting that salaries were paid to legislators in imitation of the Westminster practice, and there salaries were only introduced in 1911. Originally, MPs were supposed to serve, without compensation, but in 1911, the large numbers of members of the Independent Labour Party elected, who supported the Liberal government then in office, needed salaries to compensate for the jobs they had to give up.

Legislators are also empowered to make other laws, some of which may benefit them. One example of this is the agricultural income tax. The original exemption was passed by a House which was full of members depending on agriculture for their incomes. The pressure of lending institutions led to the imposition of an agricultural income tax, but it was assessed and levied like the old land revenue, which was abolished.

Under these circumstances, perhaps asking legislators not be corrupt is to ask them to be superhuman. What matters is the type of corruption. The USA, for example, is periodically rocked by scandals showing that Congressmen endemically abuse the system. The US President’s salary is substantial, $400,000, with another $119,000 in allowances, but costs much more. President Barack Obama cost $12 million a year, while President Trump, in his first 100 days, cost $100 million. It doesn’t seem to matter that he donates his salary. However, all of this is legal. One effect is to make sure the President doesn’t take money. In the USA, that counts. In 2004, George W. Bush spent $345 million for re-election; in 2012. Obama spent $774.5 million. Trump spent $398 million on his election. He must be willing to raise a lot of money for re-election in 2020. So will it be enough for him to avoid actually taking envelopes stuffed with cash, or is there another standard he must meet?

However, an extra element that seems at play in Pakistan, and not in the West, is that of the manipulation of the process. Perhaps it might not be as blatant as at present, where it seems that one party is being singled out, but there has always been the perception that elections are not transparent, and ‘desired results’ are always obtained. Desired by whom? The PML(N) is hesitant about claiming it is the military, the PPP much readier. Whoever it is, it should be remembered that the electorate is showing few signs of being willing to be manipulated by this charge.

One problem is that many voters do not see corruption as a problem, so long as it is in their favour. They only mind corruption when they do not benefit. The PTI narrative, that such corruption ends up preventing the government delivering services may not survive the flood of ‘electables’ who have received tickets, and who will form the bulk of any majority it might obtain.

 

n          The writer is a veteran journalist and founding member as well as executive editor of The Nation.

Corruption is a live issue, and resented enough by the common man to influence his vote. However, is it avoidable in the present system?