Can Imran Khan Really End Corruption in Pakistan?

Recent Features

Features | Politics | South Asia

Can Imran Khan Really End Corruption in Pakistan?

As Pakistan fights to curtail corruption, the government can look toward China and India for anti-corruption policies.

Can Imran Khan Really End Corruption in Pakistan?

In this July 21, 2018 file photo, Imran Khan, chief of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party, arrives to address an election campaign rally in Islamabad, Pakistan.

Credit: AP Photo/Anjum Naveed, File

On the 23rd anniversary of the founding of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), one of Pakistan’s leading political parties, the party’s chairman and current Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan took to Twitter to reiterate his party’s 24-year-old struggle “to fight [the] corrupt status quo.” Undoubtedly, Khan is known for his crusade against corruption more than anything else. Building on the anti-corruption narrative that he pushed for in his election campaign, Khan continues to work toward eliminating corrupt families from the country as he enters his ninth month in office. Nevertheless, doubt surrounds his anti-corruption drive, although it sounds like his regime has learned from China and India on anti-corruption.

President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India have faced similar struggles against corruption in their respective tenures. Rampant corruption exists in all three countries and anti-corruption measures have been one of the top priorities of the countries’ three leaders. Despite these similarities, the three nations have certain differences in their anti-corruption policies, with varied strengths and weaknesses — the results of which can be seen in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2018. Compared with China (ranked 87th out of 175) and India (ranked 78th), Pakistan (ranked 117th) has performed relatively poorly. Though Khan has expressed his desire to mimic China’s anti-corruption policy with its fight against “tigers” (corrupt officials), looking toward India’s demonetization policy could turn things around for Pakistan.

Keeping in view China and India’s anti-corruption policies, the discourse on corruption in Pakistan needs to be guided by two key questions. First, what has motivated Khan’s anti-corruption movement? Second, how effective has Khan’s anti-corruption drive been so far?

What Has Motivated Khan’s Anti-Corruption Movement?

When Khan took office in August 2018, he inherited a government with a substantial budget deficit, formidable debts, and shrinking foreign reserves. Khan holds his corrupt predecessors responsible for the country’s economic downfall and believes that recovering the looted money will ease the burden on the economy. Similar to Modi’s claims regarding his anti-corruption movement, Khan’s stated motivation behind rooting corruption out of Pakistan is to improve the country’s economy, reduce income inequality, and eradicate poverty. This is a sort of Robin Hood style of anti-corruption efforts, similar to what has been unfolding in India under Modi’s regime. However, while most research shows that corruption stifles social and economic development, corruption is not the principal factor that accounts for Pakistan’s economic challenges. In fact, a drop in corruption may not automatically accelerate economic growth.

Khan’s persistence in recovering looted money from members of opposition parties in particular has cast doubt on his real motivation behind eliminating corruption. This is further confirmed by Khan’s targeting of political opponents through Pakistan’s anti-corruption agency, the National Accountability Bureau (NAB), to recover allegedly stolen money from them. Several high-profile leaders from opposition parties have been investigated through the NAB, including former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, who was sentenced to seven years in prison in 2018, and former President Asif Ali Zardari, investigations against whom are currently underway.

Viewed in this light, China’s anti-corruption drive, led by President Xi Jinping, seems to be motivated by the same factors as Khan’s current anti-corruption movement. Xi has eliminated key members of rival factions within the CCP, including the Youth League faction led by the former President Hu Jintao. It seems that Xi has been more aggressive in dealing with corruption than in addressing economic reforms, resulting in strong support from the public but leaving the economic implications of his anti-corruption policy uncertain.

China and Pakistan’s approaches against corruption are more popular where the immediate goal is to prosecute political opponents. Their campaigns are more about managing the consequences of corruption as opposed to rooting it out altogether and ensuring positive economic outcomes. India, however, has adopted a strategic approach through its demonetization policy, albeit controversial and heavily flawed. New Delhi not only aims to root out corruption from all tiers of society but also has a wider goal of economic development and income redistribution.

Has Khan’s Anti-Corruption Drive Been Effective So Far?

If the aim of Khan’s anti-corruption drive is to prosecute corrupt politicians, his effort seems to have been successful so far. If, however, his aim is to root corruption out of the country, the drive does not seem to be doing a very good job. The current movement rests on the flawed assumption that once these corrupt politicians are put in jail, illicit practices will automatically come to an end. There are numerous other corrupt practices, such as bribing a police officer to get a driver’s license made or to file a crime report at a police station, that are still widespread in Pakistan. The current anti-corruption drive does not address the causes of corruption and hence, may not root out corruption from the country in the long run. Ending corruption requires institutional measures and reforms that can prevent rampant corruption from occurring in the first place. While Khan has taken some important steps, such as the establishment of an Assets Recovery Unit and the introduction of a whistle-blower law, ensuring and monitoring the implementation of these steps and maintaining political neutrality are vital to increasing the effectiveness of Khan’s anti-corruption drive.

Similarly, the lack of institutional reforms in Xi’s anti-corruption campaign may be the reason why China’s CPI ranking has not improved substantially over the past five years. In fact, China’s CPI has declined by one point from 40 in 2013 (when Xi assumed the presidency) to 39 in 2018. Meanwhile, India’s CPI has increased by three points from 38 in 2014 (when Modi came to power as prime minister) to 41 in 2018. While there have been concerns that Modi’s demonetization policy has failed to curb corruption in India based on the indicator of demonetized money returning to government coffers, the policy might have slowed down the formation of black money and improved tax compliance. This may not only help India eliminate corruption but also promote economic growth and narrow the wealth gap in the long run.

It may be too soon to assess the effectiveness of Khan’s anti-corruption campaign. However, a lack of fundamental institutional reforms in China and politicization in India’s anti-corruption policies have dampened the effectiveness of their anti-corruption drives over the past few years. Khan’s anti-corruption campaign can be effective if he turns toward a more institutional reform-oriented agenda once he manages to get his party into a more powerful position. Khan should grant institutional autonomy to the NAB and implement deep institutional reforms including promoting institutional transparency, fostering democratic accountability, and improving tax policies. A system that can be sustained after Khan’s tenure ends will help continue to prevent corruption from occurring in the first place.

Learning from the experiences of its neighboring countries, Pakistan needs an anti-corruption policy that seeks to combat corruption from all tiers of society, is free from political interference, and reduces the wealth gap that results from corruption. Khan should learn from the weaknesses of China and India’s anti-corruption policies in their failure to sustain anti-corruption efforts and bring new structural reforms, but he can also learn from the objectives of India’s demonetization policy and its wider purpose to promote economic development and reduce inequality. India’s strategic approach could open up new avenues for eliminating corruption throughout Pakistan. In fact, drawing on the experiences of anti-corruption in China and India, Pakistan’s anti-corruption drive could shed light on anti-corruption and public governance in other developing countries.

Zara Qaiser is a Senior Research Associate at Innovative Development Strategies (Pvt.) Ltd.

Alfred M. Wu is an Associate Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore.