In Pakistan, a struggle for power, both political and electric

I wrote the following piece for South Asia Monitor (www.southasiamonitor.org) which is a growing resource for perspectives on South Asia. I also happen to be on the its board of advisors.

Some of the elements in the piece were carried on this blog earlier.

By Mayank Chhaya

It is perhaps time to rename Pakistan Ironistan, as in a country where ironies never seem to cease.

It got rid of a Prime Minister who refused to reopen corruption cases against its President but in his place appointed someone who is himself defending bribery charges.

If that does not sum up the country’s state of affairs, try this. The newly elected Prime Minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, is a former federal Power Minister of a country in the grip of one of its worst electricity shortages. According to daily electricity generation and shortfall figures maintained by Pakistan Electric Power Company (PEPCO), on June 21 the country experienced a shortfall of 5,559 megawatt (MW) against its demand of 18,487 MW. That represents a 30 percent shortfall during the peak summer. So crippling has the power situation been that the country’s most prosperous and fertile state, Punjab, has just witnessed violent riots over severe power outages.

It is a rare case of a country where it is hard to decide which one is more intense — the struggle for political power or electric power?

The situation in the rest of Pakistan is no better. Ashraf was also once a federal Water Minister in a country that could just as easily plunge into a serious water crisis.

Those obvious drawbacks did nothing to stop him from rising as Pakistan’s Prime Minister at a time when the country is facing serious institutional conflicts among its executive, judicial and military leaderships.

Ashraf himself was not the first choice to replace Yousaf Raza Gilani who was disqualified by Pakistan’s Supreme Court. The man first named as President Asif Ali Zardari’s choice was Makhdoom Shahabuddin, but in a dramatic turn of events an anti-narcotics agency supervised by the Army obtained an arrest warrant against him. That ended his prospects as well Zardari’s hope of installing someone beholden to him.

There is no guarantee that Ashraf would do Zardari’s bidding but then, equally, there is no guarantee that he would not. The new Prime Minister will be expected by the Supreme Court generally and Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Chaudhry particularly to lean on Switzerland’s official agencies to reinvestigate the allegations that in the 1990s Zardari and his late wife, former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, had stashed away $12 million which they received in bribes for granting contracts to various companies. Both strongly denied the charges, dismissing them as political vendetta.

The new Prime Minister has his own weak spot in the form of allegations that he too received kickbacks by approving Rental Power Projects, privately financed power projects, and used the money to buy property in London. As recently as in April, Raja Rental, as he is derisively called, was questioned by the National Accountability Bureau. He has dismissed the allegations as lies and those leveling them as liars.

As if all of this was not murky enough, Chief Justice Chaudhary himself is facing questions arising out of allegations against his own son Arsalan that he was a beneficiary of luxurious hospitality to the tune of about $3.7 million from Riaz Malik, one of Pakistan’s leading business tycoons, allegedly as payoff in return for influencing the outcome of criminal cases pending against Malik and his businesses before the Supreme Court. The chief justice has asserted that allegations against his son in no way influence his personal integrity as the chief justice.

Against this sordid backdrop no one can say with any degree of certainty whether the ouster of Gilani and the rise of Ashraf materially changes anything in terms of softening the standoff between the three powerful institutions. As of now it seems highly unlikely that the Supreme Court will relent on its insistence that the government write to the Swiss authorities to reopen the investigation against Zardari.

It is hard to escape the impression that this is more a battle about who has supremacy over the state of affairs in Pakistan than just one simple case of bribery. Zardari would be the happiest man as long as the larger issue continues to obscure his own more troublesome personal problem. One cannot say whether the people of Pakistan would buy the argument that the judiciary is meddling in its democratic political process or it is doing its constitutional duty but, equally, the court too stands to lose its own credibility if that perception indeed gains ground.

In the current scuffle the one major issue of Pakistan’s deeply diminished relations with United States in the aftermath of the May, 2011, Abbottabad raid that killed Osama Bin Laden, has been pushed into a corner. The bilateral relations took a turn for the worse in November last year when U.S. airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani soldiers.

In retaliation, Pakistan blocked the crucial military supply lines to Afghanistan that transit through the country. They still remain blocked as the two sides haggle over how much the U.S. and allies should pay for every truck that transits the Pakistan-Afghanistan border. Several media reports suggest that the U.S. and allies used to pay $250 a truck before the blockade and now Pakistan is demanding as much as $5,000 per truck.

Taken together, the electricity shortages, institutional backstabbing, political volatility, rampant corruption and diplomatic debacle stack up to a nearly insurmountable wall for Pakistan. Unless there is massive nationwide reform of institutions and political culture, there appears to be no prospect of the country living up to its fundamental promise.

Unlike India, which faces many of the same challenges in terms of poor governance and corruption but is rescued by the sheer size of its economy and spread of its democracy, Pakistan remains trapped in its anachronistic power struggles among its elites.

For a semi-literate landless and unemployed Pakistani in the country’s hinterland or tribal areas living without electricity for 22 hours a day and barely any access to clean water, there is very little incentive to believe in the larger promise of equitable democracy that politicians in Islamabad make from time to time. For them there is nothing much to choose between Gilani and Ashraf or Zardari and Chaudhary. It is that disenfranchised Pakistani that the country’s leadership needs to be worried about.

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About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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