A DESERVING DYNASTY?: The Bhutto clan’s domination of Pakistan politics is based on family ties rather than merit
Pakistan’s National Assembly on June 22 elected a new prime minister, Raja Pervez Ashraf, in place of Yusuf Raza Gilani, who lost his job after being disqualified by the Supreme Court for defying court orders to pursue old corruption charges against President Asif Ali Zardari.
All three belong to the ruling Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto in the late 1960s and now the country’s biggest political party.
Gilani had refused to write a letter as directed by the Supreme Court to reopen money-laundering cases of $60 million against President Zardari in the Swiss courts. The money has been kept in Swiss banks and was allegedly stolen in Pakistan on account of kickbacks and commissions during the rule of Zardari’s late wife, Benazir Bhutto. The removal of Prime Minister Gilani, who served for more than four years in this job, has been described as a judicial coup, but the Supreme Court insisted it waited for two and a half years for the PPP-led coalition government to implement its orders.
Ashraf, a senior leader of the ruling PPP from Punjab province and a former
minister of water and power, received 211 votes in the election for the prime minister. With backing from political parties such as the PML-Q, ANP, MQM and BNP-Awami allied to the PPP, he defeated Sardar Mahtab Ahmad Khan of the opposition PML-N who received 89 votes.
The 61-year old Ashraf too has been accused of corruption as Minister of Water and Power when he tried to give contracts to private rental power companies to produce electricity to meet Pakistan’s growing energy shortfall. He is now commonly referred to as “Raja Rental” by his detractors. Besides which, he has failed to solve the power sector crisis despite publicly making promises to do so.
Earlier, federal textiles minister and a senior PPP leader from southern Punjab, Makhdoom Shahabuddin, was tipped as the candidate of the ruling parties as prime minister, but he too faced accusations of misuse of power by the army-run Anti-Narcotics Force and had to step aside. In fact, a court issued warrants for his arrest on June 21, the day he was to be nominated as candidate for the prime minister’s office and the case involved importing a banned drug, ephedrine, during his previous office as Health Minister.
Like all previous prime ministers, governors and chief ministers affiliated to the PPP, the first thing that Ashraf did was to pay a flying visit to Garhi Khuda Bakhsh near Larkana in Sindh province to pray by the graveside of late party leaders Benazir Bhutto and her father Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and show loyalty to the Bhutto family.
The PPP was founded by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and nurtured by Benazir Bhutto and one of the favourite party slogans is that “Bhutto is hero, others are zero.” It meant that nobody except the Bhuttos mattered in the party. The PPP is a dynastic party run by the Bhuttos. Zardari took over the leadership after the assassination of Benazir Bhutto in 2007. He later appointed his only son, Bilawal Zardari, as the chairman of the party and changed his name to Bilawal Bhutto Zardari to capitalize the name of the Bhuttos. No decision in the PPP can be made nowadays without President Zardari’s approval and it was he who picked up first Gilani and then Ashraf as the prime minister. Even after his election as President of Pakistan, Zardari refused to give up his position as the co-chairperson of the PPP as it empowers him to run the affairs of the ruling party and play a major role in all the decision-making.
The most frequent question being asked after the election of Ashraf as Prime Minister is whether he too, like his predecessor Gilani, would defy the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court convicted and disqualified Gilani for contempt of court due to his refusal to write the letter from his government to the Swiss authorities to reopen the money-laundering cases against President Zardari. A lively discussion is going on in the Pakistani media speculating when the new Prime Minister will be asked by the Supreme Court to write the required letter and how he will respond to it. If senior PPP leader and federal minister Khurshid Shah is to be believed, no Prime Minister of their party will ever write such a letter as it would amount to betraying the party leader, President Zardari. The stance taken by the PPP and its allies is that President Zardari enjoys presidential immunity and therefore no criminal case should be instituted against him. The Supreme Court has been arguing that the $60 million stashed away in Swiss banks by Zardari during Benazir Bhutto’s rule is owned by the people of Pakistan and should be returned. If Prime Minister Ashraf doesn’t write the letter to the Swiss authorities as is widely believed, it could lead to confrontation between him and the Supreme Court and prompt the latter to disqualify him as well as perpetuating the ongoing political crisis.
One by one, the scions of Pakistan’s ruling elite are being exposed for their involvement in cases of misuse of power and corrupt practices. Former Prime Minister Gilani’s son, Ali Musa Gilani, who was elected Member of the National Assembly some months ago in a by-election in their hometown Multan, is facing charges of using his influence to secure a permit for two pharmaceutical firms to import the banned drug, ephedrine. His warrants of arrest have been issued by a court along with the Textiles Minister Shahabuddin, who secured bail from the Peshawar High Court beforehand. The case against them is being pursued by the Anti-Narcotics Force, which is managed by serving army officers.
Former Prime Minister Gilani’s eldest son, Abdul Qadir Gilani, has been accused of involvement in a corruption case over arrangements for pilgrims to Mecca and in a scandal at a state-owned insurance company. His only daughter, Fizza Gilani, is being groomed for a political career and is already presiding at official functions without holding any formal position.
President Zardari’s only son, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, is still in his early twenties but has already been appointed as Chairman of the ruling PPP. Sections of the media have reported his colourful life as a playboy in the UK, where he has been studying.
Former Punjab chief minister and soon to be Deputy Prime Minister Chaudhry Pervez Elahi’s son, Moonis Elahi, was arrested in a corruption case and is still facing trial in a court of law. Aimal Wali Khan, the lone son of the ruling Awami National Party (ANP) President Asfandyar Wali Khan, was reported to have started business operations in Dubai and Malaysia with money that his father made as head of a political party now in power as any ally of the PPP in the federal and provincial governments in Khyber, Pakhtunkhwa, Balochistan and Sindh provinces.
The latest to come under scrutiny is Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry, who has led a campaign against corruption and even taken to task the powerful Pakistan Army and ISI officers. In the latest scandal, real estate tycoon Malik Riaz Hussain accused Chaudhry’s son Dr Arsalan Iftikhar of accepting almost $3.6 million in bribes from him in exchange for favourable verdicts in cases involving his businesses. He also accused Iftikhar Chaudhry of knowing about the bribes and not doing anything about them until the case sparked media frenzy. Malik Riaz hasn’t presented examples of such verdicts and Dr Arsalan Iftikhar, the chief justice’s son, denies any wrongdoing.
With stories of corruption and abuse of power increasingly making media headlines in Pakistan and such cases now heard almost every day in the superior courts, the election of Ashraf as Prime Minister is a stop-gap measure and it won’t resolve the serious problems facing Pakistan. He can only stay in power for the next eight months as the five-year term of the government will end early next year when the general election is due to be held. In fact, the demand for early election has grown louder and more widespread since the change of government.
Besides the opposition political parties, the influential Supreme Court Bar Association has also demanded a new general election to overcome the political instability in the country. In a recent meeting, the Supreme Court Bar Association noted that political instability was harmful for the country and its economy and bringing in a new prime minister wouldn’t solve the many problems and challenges facing Pakistan.
Former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif (leader of the main opposition party, PML-N), Imran Khan’s PTI, and a number of other parties have been demanding fresh polls for quite some time, but they became more vocal when Gilani had to quit after being disqualified by the Supreme Court. The PPP-led ruling coalition, however, hasn’t accepted the demands as it wants to use the last eight months in office to approve development projects, give jobs, dole out favours and fulfill some of its election campaign promises in the hope of influencing the voters before the next polls.
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