The recent discovery of up to 100 contestants for political office in Pakistan also holding foreign passports was neither new nor surprising.
For years, members of Pakistan’s political class have frequently flouted the law and made a mockery of the established order. In this background, reports of the country’s electoral authorities moving to block candidates with dual nationalities from contesting next month’s parliamentary elections, finally brings a long overdue breath of fresh air to the South Asian country’s legacy of controversial politics. Yet, this and a raft of other measures to enforce tighter rules on contestants must only be seen as a long overdue beginning rather than an end to lift the quality of Pakistan’s democracy.
Sweeping changes in the past week among government officials deputed to Pakistan’s provinces have addressed the call of neutrality of the administrative order, ahead of the elections. This stands in contrast to past elections when clearly partisan officials had weighed in favour of one contestant or another.
Additional safeguards such as forcing candidates to reveal full details of their financial affairs is not new. But for now, it appears that Pakistan’s electoral authorities are moving with a fine-toothed comb to seek full information on such vital matters in a country where candidates had once conveniently ignored calls for greater transparency.
The apparent tightening of electoral rules ahead of general elections follows a year of unexpected events, starting with the removal of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif. He was forced out by a Supreme Court order triggered by the chance discovery of his family’s massive unaccounted offshore wealth.
Pakistanis must be grateful to the so-called ‘Panama leaks’ — leakage of information on Panama-based bank assets of the rich and mighty from all over the world, where the Sharif family had conveniently parked its wealth. It soon became a matter of public knowledge and discussion. The considerable scale of the former first family’s offshore assets include luxurious apartments located along London’s world famous Park Lane. The financial worth of those assets are well beyond the imagination of ordinary Pakistanis.
Though Sharif continues to dispute the Supreme Court judgement as part of a conspiracy aimed at his removal, the evidence on the ground points to the contrary. In addition to the case against Sharif, events in Pakistan today also suggest a growing yearning for greater accountability among the country’s ruling class. Across social media, messages of an unprecedented clean-up, beginning with those elected to positions of authority, continue to rise in popularity.
Sceptics, however, feel the present trends in the country are only a passing phase in the history of a nation where tolerance for graft has grown over time. The challenges confronting Pakistan are, in fact, just far too many and they are obviously tough to even begin to be resolved without a major shake-up in the way the country is being governed.
Given this background, the tightening of election rules could mark an important first step towards reversing what some have already characterised as Pakistan’s continuing descent into unending chaos. Going forward, Pakistan’s destiny will be shaped by decisive action on three inter-related fronts:
First, a new government elected will need to keep up the push against corruption as a top priority beyond the pre-poll clean-up drive. Across the world, its hard to find the example of a vibrant and successful country that has also tolerated unbridled corruption. In sharp contrast, there are well-documented cases of countries with great potential that have ended up destroying their futures as a consequence of continued tolerance for corruption.
Second, in this battle to clean up Pakistan, lessons will have to be learnt from the country’s recent history. The reckless use of public finances in the past five years under the watch of deeply controversial former finance minister Ishaq Dar, has not only saddled Pakistan with an unprecedented debt burden, but it has also severely compromised transparency and oversight that were once the norm. Today, unending stories of corruption in official contracts provides much food for thought over the risk of unchecked public expenditure on fancy infrastructure projects to achieve quick results.
Finally, for Pakistan’s long-term benefit, its state institutions will have to take the responsibility to monitor the conduct of the nation’s functionaries — ranging from civil servants, members of the ruling structure and all others related to governance. Unless members of the judiciary and other institutions responsible for such oversight are kept independent of external influence, Pakistan will not even begin to reform itself. These prerequisites are necessary to follow up on the recent measures of tightening of electoral laws. On the positive side, there is now at least a chance after a long while of Pakistan’s parliamentary elections to be held in a fairer environment than before.
Meanwhile, the likes of Sharif and his coterie of supporters continue to target the army as the principal agitator against them. And yet, they have little to say about their unaccounted wealth and blatant show of opulence in Pakistan and beyond.
If Pakistan’s history is objectively written, the case of the ‘Panama leaks’ will certainly figure prominently. But the country’s yearning for a more honest leadership to finally oversee a set of long-overdue reforms should also figure prominently in that treatise. The year 2018 will likely stand out as a meaningful period in Pakistan’s history for having set the ball rolling in the right direction.
Farhan Bokhari is a Pakistan-based commentator who writes on political and economic matters.