Pakistan is preparing for elections in May and June, and an all-party caretaker government will soon take over to supervise the process. Meanwhile, things continue as eventfully as usual. There has been yet another clash between the Supreme Court and the Zardari government; a previously obscure Muslim cleric returned from Canada to lead what he hoped would be a ‘million-strong’ anti-corruption march to Islamabad; and two factories in Lahore and Karachi have burned to a cinder with the workers still inside. Add to all this Sunni vigilantes regularly targeting and killing Shia; the Pakistani Taliban striking security targets; the military responding with indiscriminate killings; and the regular drone attacks, courtesy of Obama.

On 15 January, the Supreme Court, having last year got rid of one prime minister, Yousuf Raza Gilani, for contempt of court, ordered the arrest of his successor, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and 16 other men on charges of corruption linked to kickbacks handed out by the power companies contracted to supplement the country’s inadequate electricity supply. These so-called Rental Power Projects gave rise to the nickname ‘Raja Rental’ that Ashraf acquired when he was Zardari’s minister for water and power. After all, nine firms had received a government advance of 22 billion rupees so it was only fair that the minister and his officials be rewarded. It was a surprisingly honest report by the usually tame National Accountability Bureau (NAB), set up by General Musharraf in 1999 to investigate corruption, which led the Supreme Court to order last March that all the RPP contracts be declared null and void. The judges are now livid because they believe the NAB is deliberately dragging its feet.

The court’s actions provoked complaints from the NAB chairman, the retired naval chief Admiral Fasih Bokhari, who claimed that the NAB was still investigating the matter and asked the court to suspend hearings on the case, but to no avail. Ashraf still hasn’t beem arrested: according to the constitution the prime minister cannot be arrested without the approval of the speaker of the National Assembly, who can give his approval only if parliament is in session, which it isn’t. Meanwhile enormous pressure has been put on NAB staff to present a new report that doesn’t mention him. Two senior NAB officials have been suspended; one of them, Kamran Faisal, was found hanged in a government hostel in Islamabad. The police suggest suicide; others insist it was murder. The Supreme Court has now scheduled a hearing to investigate the affair.

Pro-government journalists accuse the Supreme Court of being part of a conspiracy with the military and the Canadian preacher, Tahirul Qadri, whose march on Islamabad attracted less than 50,000 protesters. Many of them are still camping out in the city in freezing temperatures, while the fiery preacher keeps warm in the special container that serves as his office. Government representatives met Qadri and said they agreed with him: poverty was bad and it was important to hold the elections on time. Whether the preacher will manage to set up an alliance of religious groups to contest the elections remains to be seen. The country’s oldest Islamist party, Jamaat-e-Islami, did not support the march.

Zardari is the most unpopular leader in the country’s history, largely because of his involvement in corruption. The main opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, is no better. Both come near the top of the list of Pakistan’s billionaires (Zardari at number two, Sharif at number four). The list gives ‘politics’ as the source of their wealth. At number 11 is a self-made real-estate tycoon called Malik Riaz Hussain who has made no secret of his generous donations to both Zardari and Sharif’s parties as well as the private accounts of politicians and generals. Hussain grew rich from a contract to build gated cities for upper-middle-class Pakistani retirees at home and abroad: these Bahria Towns come complete with kitsch versions of Trafalgar Square and the Eiffel Tower, as well as plenty of shopping malls. When the government asked Riaz to discredit the chief justice, Iftikhar Chaudhry, by paying for his son Arsalan Iftikhar Chaudhry to gamble in casinos in Monte Carlo and rent a flat in Portman Square, the mogul was delighted. Hussain had been accused of illegally acquiring the land on which the gated cities are built and a NAB investigation was in train. If Chaudhry could be blackmailed into behaving like judges used to, the interests of both government and tycoon would be served. But the chief justice instructed the court to hear a suo motu action and absented himself. Chaudhry had won another battle.

And the general elections? At the moment it doesn’t look as if any single party will get an overall majority. But Imran Khan is confident that his anti-corruption and pro-social reform Pakistan Movement for Justice (PTI) will triumph if the ballot boxes are properly invigilated. Most recent elections have seen votes bought by Zardari and Sharif. It might be the same this time, or perhaps the newly enfranchised generation of voters will actually punish the oligarchic parties. More than seven million citizens have registered as members and supporters of the PTI. Such a huge registration is without precedent in South Asia. Whether it will translate into electoral triumph is another matter.

24 January

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