The Filthy Rich Election

Tariq Ali

Not long before last month’s elections, dozens of workers (the youngest was 12) were burned to death in factory fires in Karachi and Lahore. Pakistan’s rulers were unmoved: there were token expressions of regret but no talk of tough new laws being passed after the election. There is barely any safety regulation in Pakistan, and if any legislation does impede business a modest bribe usually solves the problem. Factory inspections were discontinued during the Musharraf regime in order, it was claimed, to protect industry from harassment by state inspectors. Ali Enterprises, the factory that burned down in Karachi, somehow passed an inspection by a New York-based body called Social Accountability International.

As for outright crimes, it’s best to use the cloak of religion to justify them. This effectively paralyses the lower and middle echelons of the judiciary, the police and the politicians. In March, Joseph Colony, a Christian settlement in Lahore, was attacked by a Muslim group calling itself Lovers of the Prophet. The Lovers had heard that one of the Christians had defiled the name of Muhammad. The accusation was false, but the person accused was arrested even so, and, even so, the Lovers and other zealots attacked the settlement, burning down 171 dwellings as the police and other worthy citizens watched. As news of the disaster spread and the chief minister of the Punjab, Shahbaz Sharif, pretended nothing was going on, the chief justice of the Supreme Court criticised the police and the Punjab government for failing to protect the public and noted that it hadn’t learned the lesson of the even worse atrocity in the predominantly Christian town of Gojra in 2009, when eight Christians were burned alive, dozens were injured, houses were torched and a church destroyed. The chief justice asked why the report submitted by the judicial inquiry into that incident had not been published. There was no reply from the provincial government. One reason for politicians’ complacency is that they know they have the support of the silent majority. A Pew Institute survey carried out in April reveals that 84 per cent of Pakistanis favour the sharia as the only law of the land, slightly fewer than in Iraq (91 per cent), more than Egypt (74 per cent) and seven times as high as in Turkey (12 per cent).

The elected representatives of the people didn’t pay much attention to the factory fires or to the anti-Christian riots. They were busy elsewhere. Take just one example: the shenanigans of the provincial assembly in Sindh where the Pakistan People’s Party, led by Benazir Bhutto’s widower, Asif Zardari, is the single largest bloc. The day before the assembly was due to be dissolved in advance of the general election, the provincial government ordered all the banks to stay open (it was a Saturday) so that money could be withdrawn. Long-forgotten schemes were revived and a number of dodgy deals hurriedly voted through the chamber. And as if to reward themselves for all this hard work, the assembly voted its members a 60 per cent salary rise backdated to July 2011, adding measures to make sure that anyone who wasn’t re-elected kept his or her perks: free government accommodation with servants laid on, VIP treatment at airports, official passports and so on. It’s a mystery why they don’t just make the privileges hereditary. Needless to say, very few members of parliament pay taxes and several outgoing cabinet ministers, including the prime minister, are refusing to pay the electricity and telephone bills in their government residences. It’s easy to see why so many Pakistanis want to become members of one of the five parliamentary assemblies.

On 11 May, having been governed for five years by the PPP, the country voted to replace the filthy rich Zardari and his gang with the filthy rich Sharif brothers and their gang. Many of the parliamentarians seem frightening and powerful figures back home: a land-grab or two here, a few abducted women, stolen property, some blackmail, violence or bullying. But in the National Assembly they are mediocrities, ignored by their patrons and barely able to understand a parliamentary bill drawn up by civil servants (whose own standards have dropped dramatically). Their main concern is to make as much money and get as much land as they can while their party is in power. The history of Zardari and the Sharif brothers has been sketched in the LRB often enough. Is there anything new to say about this particular election?

The turnout was huge: 84 million people (55 per cent of the electorate) voted. The Pakistan Muslim League (N), the vehicle used by the Sharifs, won convincingly, with the help of the distortions of the first-past-the-post system. It didn’t get quite enough seats to govern on its own, so a few so-called Independents promised their vote: they usually auction themselves to the highest bidder when no party is close to an overall majority, but if it’s clear who the winner is they are – less lucratively – bound to go with the largest party, and it decides the price. The Sharifs want to bring into their government the JUI (Jamiat Ulema Islam), an outfit led by a roguish mullah called Maulana Fazlur Rehman, better known as ‘Maulana Diesel’ after the deal he cut with Benazir Bhutto giving him the diesel franchise in the Peshawar region in return for a promise of parliamentary support. Rehman accused Imran Khan and his party, Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, of being backed by ‘Americans, Jews, Ahmadis’, but if he wants backing to mount a coup against Khan’s PTI in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (the border province alongside Afghanistan where Khan’s party won a convincing victory) he might encounter some resistance. Nawaz Sharif, a cricket fanatic, is keen to maintain good relations with Khan.

The PPP, long past its sell-by date even before Zardari took over, has been wiped out as a national force. It was humiliated in the country’s largest province, Punjab, and now has an effective presence only in its homebase of Sindh. The reason for its downfall isn’t a mystery. For example, Zardari and his cronies wouldn’t bother even to think up a story before demanding out of the blue that people sell their houses and land at a fraction of their value. At a gathering of party workers and leaders in Lahore late last month, Zardari was attacked for having made two of his corrupt friends – men who had absolutely no interest in the welfare of the country or its people – prime minister. Naheed Khan, Benazir Bhutto’s confidant and private secretary, who was sitting next to her when she was assassinated, was one of the critics. Zardari loathes her (and vice versa) and she has remained silent on the subject of Benazir’s death largely out of an understandable fear of being bumped off. Will she now reveal all?

Khan’s PTI emerged as the second largest party in the country. The political tsunami that he promised would sweep him to power didn’t, however, materialise. The majority of first-time voters plumped for the Sharifs, believing presumably that as businessmen themselves the brothers would act to end the power cuts that have destroyed many small businesses and made the people’s lives a misery. The only policies so far touted are the immediate privatisation of steel mills, airlines, railways and power and the ending of food subsidies. It’s true the state has disastrously failed to deliver, but the poor will suffer. Nawaz Sharif’s motorway has reduced the journey from Lahore to Islamabad by nearly two hours, but it is barely used. The bullet trains being proposed for the line from Karachi to Peshawar via Lahore would make a lot of local contractors and foreign companies very rich, as the new motorway did, but hardly anyone would be able to afford a ticket. To impose IMF-required austerity measures in a country like Pakistan would only deepen the class divide. Introducing VAT, for instance, would increase malnutrition and encourage more people to resort to barter or the black economy. And the notion that privatisation reduces corruption is a joke.

Immediate reform is needed in the tax system. As elsewhere in the world, the rich barely pay any taxes since most of their income is hidden from view. A recent report by the Westminster Parliament’s International Development Committee found that only 768,000 Pakistanis paid any income tax last year – that’s 0.57 per cent of the population. In countries of a comparable level of development the figure is usually around 15 per cent. Unsurprisingly, 69 per cent of National Assembly members paid no tax in 2011. All this uncollected money could lay the foundations for the proper state education and health service that was the main demand of the PTI. (Perhaps the IRS, armed with a few drones, could lend a hand with the tax collecting.)

Khan lost because people decided to give the Sharif brothers another chance to modernise the country. The PTI had antagonised some of its supporters by doing deals with bandwagon careerists who joined the party thinking they would be on the winning side. Others didn’t like cosying up to the Jamaat-e-Islami, a moderate Islamist party not unlike the Muslim Brotherhood. There was large-scale vote-rigging in Karachi, but that’s always the case there since the MQM, the party that runs the city, also runs protection rackets that ensure a steady flow of funds and parliamentary representation. On this occasion a recount led to the seat being won by the PTI, a victory that soured when one of the party’s local leaders, Zahra Shahid Hussain, a woman who had fought for good causes most of her adult life and had campaigned vigorously for a recount, was shot dead outside her house by men on motorbikes, whose identities remain unknown. Was this ordered by the MQM or carried out by a pair of executioners acting without authority? We don’t know and the MQM has denied responsibility. It always does.

If there is a difference between the defeated and the victors it is this: Zardari and his gang enriched themselves and bullied and punished those who stood in their way; the Sharif brothers insist that they are no longer interested in the accumulation of personal capital. Nawaz’s longish sojourn in Saudi Arabia as a guest of the state (better than prison at home under Musharraf) gave him time to think over his past misdeeds and perhaps the proximity to Mecca helped a bit as well (not that it has curbed the vices of the Saudi royals). Anyway, this is the claim. The implication is that the brothers will now act on behalf of their class, not just in their own personal interest. Whether this will extend to the pro-Musharraf and pro-Zardari faction headed by the Chaudhrys of Gujrat, who split from the Sharifs, exercised power with military backing and made loadsamoney, will be an interesting test.

How will the new government triangulate with the army and the United States? The latter funds the former. Both need to be placated. Shahbaz Sharif is busy wooing the generals; his brother Nawaz has said in public that his last administration was toppled by a bad general (Musharraf) and not the army as a whole: a fiction designed to secure a rapprochement with India, which the army has always opposed but without which business will be difficult. Might the US be willing to cease all drone attacks for a year in order to help the Sharifs in return for a smooth transition in Afghanistan following the withdrawal of US forces? And will the army play ball in Baluchistan and give up its ‘destroy and dump the Baluch’ tactics? (The province is strategically important thanks to its new port – built by the Chinese – at Gwadar, and the army’s random killings of Baluch nationalists have antagonised everyone.) Will the Saudis use their money and religious standing to shut down the Pakistani Taliban? The commentariat is convinced that things can’t get worse. I hope they’re right.