Democratic corruption

  0 comments   |     by Sakib Sherani

“Chaste to her husband, frank to all beside / A teeming mistress, but a barren bride” — Alexander Pope

FROM Brazil to Malaysia, democracy around the world is under threat. Not from the march of army columns, but from the greed and corruption of a rapacious global political elite. While nation-destroying corruption of leaders such as Ferdinand Marcos, Mobutu Sese Seko, Sani Abacha, Alberto Fujimori, or Robert Mugabe was the accepted ‘norm’ till the 1990s for a select band of unfortunate Third World countries whose people had been made destitute by their leaders’ insatiable greed, the latest wave of democracy was thought to have brought in a newer, and less-tainted, leadership.

From Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan to Cristina Fernandez de Kerchner in Argentina, Hugo Chavez in Venezuela to Uhuru Muigai Kenyatta in Kenya, citizens of newly democratic countries have looked up to young, educated and dynamic leaders to provide salvation from the curse of history. But this was not to be. Wildly popular leaders elected via freer and fairer elections proved to be a false dawn in most countries — much like the lament from Alexander Pope’s Rape of the Lock.

Far from strengthening democracy in their respective countries by building or consolidating institutions, most of these leaders chose to become elected autocrats by dismantling, brick by brick, constitutional checks and balances against misrule and established systems of good governance. Their popularity — born out of a political dynasty, a successful acting career, leadership in the independence movement or just charismatic demagoguery — combined with the decimation of legitimate democratic opposition and institutional safeguards more often than not has bred a sense of entitlement and a culture of impunity. These are fertile grounds for corruption and misuse of unbridled power.

Democracy is being undermined globally by corruption.

Hence, the scale, brazenness and pervasiveness of corruption in these countries. Hugo Chavez’s family in Venezuela, Tamil Nadu’s chief minister Jayalalitha, the Rajapakse family in Sri Lanka, are just a handful among a host of other recent popularly elected leaders accused of amassing untold wealth while in office. Similar accusations dog the family of the prime minister of Bangladesh and the erstwhile prime minister of Thailand, Ms Yingluck Shinawatra.

In Brazil, the leftist President Dilma Rouseff and her predecessor Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are embroiled in a multi-billion dollar embezzlement scandal involving Petrobras, the country’s state-owned oil producer. Prime Minister Najib Razzak of Malaysia has had the good fortune of ‘someone’ crediting his account with $700 million overnight (linked to Malaysia’s state fund 1MDB), while Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan is accused of wasting state funds on building a new palace for himself costing over $600m.

Nor is abuse of public office for personal enrichment limited any longer to dirt-poor developing countries. Even in countries with an established, albeit turbulent, tradition of parliamentary democracy, such as Spain and Italy, popularly elected leaders voted into office on a promise of change have quickly become tainted with allegations of corruption.

Closer to home, proceedings of hearings before the US Senate in 1999 provide a detailed account of millions of dollars of funds being moved through Citibank’s private banking centres on behalf of Mr Zardari between 1994 and 1997, including on account of commissions by the Swiss company Cotecna. Details of beneficial ownership of a web of offshore companies in the British Virgin Islands by the then-prime minister and her spouse is provided in the official record of the proceedings. Further material on beneficial ownership of offshore companies and transactions amounting to millions of dollars during this period is provided in the Global Corruption Report (2004) in the section titled ‘The hunt for looted state assets: the case of Benazir Bhutto’.

Recent revelations about offshore companies and accounts belonging to the prime minister’s family dating to the 1990s — a period of intense speculation about corruption involving South Korea’s Daewoo, and in the yellow cabs import scheme that apparently caused a $1 billion loss to Pakistan’s exchequer — reinforce the perception that the transition to democracy in Pakistan has taken a familiar, and less desirable, path.

Not unlike other parts of the world, where elected kleptocrats have been caught out with their ‘snouts in the trough’ (as the late Ardeshir Cowasjee would put it), Pakistani politicians start crying hoarse about the threat to ‘the system’ whenever their corruption is exposed. Presumably, the system they are out to protect is not one that guarantees education, jobs or basic health services to Pakistan’s teeming poor, but one that allows the entitlement to loot.

However, there is nothing constitutional or democratic about the systematic pillage of state resources for personal enrichment. About the only democratic thing about such large-scale corruption is that, barring the handful who benefit from it, it affects all other Pakistanis indiscriminately, with the poor and the vulnerable bearing the brunt of its pernicious consequences.

These consequences have been on egregious display time and again: when public schools in Azad Kashmir collapsed due to poor construction in the October 2005 earthquake killing thousands of innocent children; when poor Thari children die each year due to lack of basic facilities; when faulty scanners are imported to protect our cities; when expired medicines and vaccines are purchased for public hospitals; when the government does not have the money to pay pensioners, doctors, nurses, teachers and Lady Health Workers their dues for months on end – but can cough up $2bn for vanity bus and train projects; when an ill-funded and ill-equipped police has to take on well-armed criminal gangs backed by powerful politicians; ad nauseam.

True democracy is an aspiration worth pursuing. But passing off large-scale looting and plunder as constitutional democracy does not serve the interest of Pakistan’s citizens or its future generations.

The writer is a former economic adviser to government, and currently heads a macroeconomic consultancy based in Islamabad.

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