As a young democracy, Pakistan has yet to achieve an equilibrium of power.
Although nominally administered by elected governments drawn from the national and provincial assemblies, the country habitually stumbles from one political furore to another that enthrals the public with speculation about the impending doom of one administration or another.
Invariably, the outcome is determined by the army, which has ruled Pakistan for half its history and remains its most influential political entity.
More frequently than not, such political noise has echoed turf wars between the prime minister and army chief of staff of the day.
Indeed, during the troubled democratic period from 1988 to 1999, between one spell of martial law and another, opposition politicians connived with the army to bring down three successive elected governments and subsequently prosecute the deposed prime ministers – Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif, now serving his third term – on corruption charges, none of which survived judicial processes, even under subsequent military rule.
Attempts at accountability
The attempts at accountability were thus dismissed as witch-hunts, good for little else than political persecution, largely because they exclusively targeted politicians and their bureaucratic aides and business partners.
The underlying scepticism was engrained with the sense that the law applied to democrats, but not to the army and its political allies.
The attempts at accountability were thus dismissed as witch-hunts, good for little else than political persecution...
The consequences have been disastrous. Corruption has penetrated every nook and cranny of the government apparatus, and from there to the business community, judiciary and media – even to the clergy.
To most Pakistanis, the doors of opportunity are bolted shut because they lack the requisite cash and connections to access decision makers. They cannot obtain good-quality education or healthcare, jobs or contracts on merit, nor obtain justice from the police or the courts.
With so much corruption and so little trust in the government, it is hardly surprising that Pakistan has the lowest tax-to-gross domestic product ratio in the world, spends 64 percent of its revenue on debt servicing to pay for government spending that is inflated by 30-50 percent by the cost of corruption, and has the lowest economic growth rate in the Indian subcontinent.
While that has not changed for many years, the character of Pakistani politics has. Many of the country’s people, particularly the approximately 80 percent aged under 30, are vociferously demanding “change”, characterised as an end to the dynastical leaderships of the country’s major political parties inasmuch as they represent the status quo.
Those expectations have been reinvigorated by a series of recent events.
First, Army Chief of Staff General Raheel Sharif declared that the territorial war against Taliban insurgents in the federally administered tribal areas bordering eastern Afghanistan had been won.
Second, the leaked Panama Papers revealed that the adult children of Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (he is not related to General Sharif) have done business through offshore companies, along with 217 other Pakistanis, including the chairman of the Senate committee on tax reformation and a high court judge.
Then the army chief publicly called for “across-the-board accountability“, in remarks that coincided with the prime minister boarding a flight from London to Islamabad, where demands for a judicial commission awaited him.
That was followed by the unprecedented news, leaked by the army’s publicity wing, that 11 officers, including two generals, had been dismissed from service for corruption.
The prime minister has since written to the chief justice of the Supreme Court, asking him to form a commission that would look into the overseas finances of holders of authority past and present, knowing full well that many of his political opponents would be dragged into the mud.
Meanwhile, army sources say more leaked stories of “golden calves” being booted out of the service for corruption are forthcoming, and charges will also be brought against General Sharif’s predecessor, Ashfaq Pervez Kayani, the target of long-standing allegations of corruption in connivance with the Pakistan People’s Party government of former president Asif Ali Zardari. Both have repudiated the allegations.
If form is any indication, General Sharif is working to a two-year-old plan and intends to end his three-year term as army chief of staff at the end of 2016, having led the country to victory in its territorial war in the tribal areas, by cleansing the army itself of the sense of impunity that has long characterised it, politically.
If General Sharif does take up the Kayani challenge, the implications are bound to be far-reaching. Assuming the Supreme Court agrees to form the commission, it would doubtless delve into the public record, which is chock full of politicians taking undue advantage of the government’s largesse.
Despite fears that the growing impetus for accountability of civilian politicians is yet another conspiracy to weaken the democratic dispensation, nearly all such known cases have already passed through the requisite judicial processes.
As such, the commission is unlikely to turn up anything that would prompt the disqualification of top political figures from parliament and holding public office. The Supreme Court has already indicated it is weary of entertaining political bandwagons.
Nonetheless, events are certainly headed in the direction of a political landmark, whereby legislation that increases the transparency of governance and reduces the impunity of responsible officials may be enacted.
Indeed, the time is ripe for Pakistan to focus on the eradication of corruption and nepotism, because that is what fuels the widespread poverty that, in turn, generates a never-ending stream of recruits for the organised crime-terrorism nexus that remains an existential threat, despite victory in the territorial war.
Tom Hussain is a journalist and Pakistan affairs analyst based in Islamabad.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.