Despite the popularity of its push for accountability, Pakistan’s PTI government still faces a raft of opposition. Rahimullah Yusufzai reports
In a scenario reminiscent of a game of dominoes, top politicians in Pakistan are toppling, one by one. Never before have so many leading politicalfigures been arrested in such a short timespan,charged with corruption and misuse of power.
And they are not alone. Senior bureaucrats, well-known businessmen, unknown contractorsand notorious conmen have also been apprehended on similar charges.
Among those seized recentlyis Pakistan’sformer President, Asif Ali Zardari, who is co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) and widower of the late Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. The 63-year-old politician from Sindh province was sent to Rawalpindi’s Central Prison, commonly known as Adiala jail,after his arrest on June 10 but was shifted to the hospitaltwo days later after complaining of chest pain.
This is not Zardari’s first time at Adiala; hewas incarcerated thereduring two former prison terms totalling 11 years. Other prominent Pakistani politicians imprisoned at the infamous jail in the past include former prime ministers Nawaz Sharif and Yousaf Raza Gillani.
A few days later, Zardari’s younger sister Faryal Talpur, who is a provincial law-maker from Sindh province where the PPP is in power, was also arrested, though she wasn’t taken to the prison. Instead, her house in Islamabad was declared a sub-jail. The siblings are both facing several charges of maintaining fake bank accounts for purposes of money-laundering and shifting ill-gotten money abroad.
Pakistan’s Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) claims to have collected enough evidence to convict Zardari and his sister in the court. Unsurprisingly, the Zardari family denies the allegations, calling the arrests political victimisation of opposition leaders by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) government. For its part, the PTI leadership insists it had nothing to do with the arrests, as these were ordered by the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). Besides, it claims the cases were instituted against Zardari before the PTI came to power.
On June 11, a day after Zardari’s arrest, a leading figure of the opposition Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, was apprehendedin Lahore on corruption charges. He is the son of former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif and nephew of deposed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. Both Nawaz and Shahbaz Sharif are also facing a number of corruption cases. The former is in jail after being sentenced to seven years’ imprisonment, while the latter is on bail after serving some time in prison and could be arrested again. In fact, Shahbaz Sharif recently returned to Pakistan from the UK, where he spent two months undergoing medical treatment.
When Sibtain Khan, a provincial minister in the PTI government in Punjab, was also arrested on charges of corruption and misuse of power, the PTI cited his arrest as proof of the even-handedness of the ongoing accountability drive. (During the PTI’s previous five-year stint in power in its stronghold of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, one of the party’s provincial ministers, Ziaullah Afridi, was arrested on charges of misuse of power.) However, the PTI’s opponents insist that several federal and provincial ministers of the ruling party are currently facing serious charges of corruption yet are not being apprehended.
Other important politicians currently in prison include Sharjeel Inam Memon, a former PPP information minister in Sindh charged with causing Rs6 billion losses to the public exchequer due to his corrupt practices, and having assets beyond his known sources of income. Agha Siraj Durrani, the speaker of the Sindh Assembly and also a PPP member, was detained by NAB in February this year and is facing serious charges of corruption as he, too, allegedly has assets beyond his known sources of income. In addition, three former prime ministers – Yousaf Raza Gillani, Raja Pervez Ashraf and Shahid Khaqan Abbasi –couldface arrest, ascorruption investigations against them are slowly making headway.
The issue is affecting even those in the highest office. Prime Minister Imran Khan is facing investigation over the so-called ‘helicopter case’, in which he has been accused of using official Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government helicopters, in violation of rules. His defence minister Pervez Khattak and chief minister of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Mahmood Khan, have also been interrogated by NAB in a case concerning the lease of state land belonging to the forest department at the Malam Jabba summer hill resort.
Many other politicians affiliated with the ruling and opposition parties could land in jail if NAB found enough evidence to file references against them in accountability courts.
Meanwhile, in faraway London, Pakistani politician Altaf Hussain, head of his faction of the MQM, was arrested by the British police for making an inflammatory hate speech in 2016, which he had delivered via phone to his supporters in Karachi and London. Hussain was released on bail the next day, pending further investigation, though he isn’t yet out of the woods. He has lost political support as the MQM has split into three factions, and is facing a number of serious charges in Pakistan, which is seeking his extradition from UK so that he can be put on trial.
The arrests in Pakistan are part of the campaign by NAB to make politicians and others accountable. This drive has been expedited since Imran Khan came to power last year, as he made accountability the major plank of his July 2018 election campaign. The opposition parties have threatened to join hands to stage protests and oust Khan from power but, although scattered protests were staged by the PPP and PML-N to condemn the arrests of Zardari, his sister and Hamza Shahbaz Sharif, an organised and countrywide anti-government protest has yet to take shape.
Already, the two major opposition parties, PML-N and PPP, have agreed to start an anti-government and pro-democracy movement after resolving that a continuation of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s PTI rule would be harmful for the country. The decision was made in a rare recent meeting between the PML-N’s Maryam Nawaz Sharif, daughter of Nawaz Sharif, and Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the only son of the late Benazir Bhutto and Asif Ali Zardari. To start with, they would join hands in parliament and also persuade the smaller opposition parties to block the passage of the annual budget, recently presented by the government. Through this tactic they want to force the government to show its majority in parliament and fail. One of its current allies, the BNP-M, whosegrievancesthe government has yet to address, might join the opposition.
Other parties such as the Islamic-rooted Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam-Fazal (JUI-F), the secular Awami National Party (ANP) and the National Party have already agreed to join the anti-Imran Khan campaign. In particular, the JUI-F, led by Maulana Fazlur Rahman, has announced a plan to bring thousands of its supporters, mostly students of madrassas, to the federal capital, Islamabad, to stage a sit-in protest until the government is ousted.
The issue of the arrest of opposition leaderson corruption charges may not be enough to inspire the people to come out on the streets in large numbers to topple the government, as Imran Khan’s slogan of accountability is still popular,with the majority of Pakistanisin favour of the ruling elite beingheld to account for their actions. However, rising inflation due to economic problems has made the government increasingly unpopular and opened a window of opportunity for the opposition to mobilise disenchanted sections of the population.The government may not yet be ready to fall, but it could be weakened and made gradually vulnerable.