ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — As a Feb. 3 election nears, Pakistan's widely publicized drive against corruption - highlighted by the recent dismissal of former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto - has lost momentum.
Now the man who ousted her, President Farooq Leghari, is under fire from critics who say his motives were suspect.
After charging Ms. Bhutto and the National Assembly with corruption in November, Mr. Leghari dismissed them, as he can do under the Constitution. He replaced them with an interim administration until the elections.
Many Pakistanis believed that the massive government upheaval last fall would signal the start of reforms. The former prime minister's husband, Asif Ali Zardari, who served as investments minister in Bhutto's administration, was charged with taking kickbacks on government contracts.
Senior bureaucrats and some politicians also were arrested on graft-related charges. The interim government appointed a powerful ehtesab (accountability) commissioner to investigate accusations of corruption and recommend charges.
But critics say Leghari hasn't been able to deliver the hundreds of arrests and quick sentences that were expected. Some say the president, Bhutto's former ally and trusted lieutenant, actually dismissed her because she wasn't following his advice on policies.
The lack of progress in the anticorruption drive has triggered popular frustration with the president and the caretaker government. It has become an embarrassment for Leghari, who defended his actions in the capital, Islamabad, this week. Bristling at suggestions that his reforms have failed, he told foreign journalists that the delayed investigations were unavoidable.
"We are following a process of law, and [are] making sure that these cases can be sustained by corroborative evidence," he said. "If there's been a certain delay, how can that be termed as messing up?"
Leghari acknowledges that Pakistan's official investigating agencies are strained by the breadth and sophistication of white-collar crime they are facing. Pakistan, for example, was named the world's second most corrupt country after Nigeria last year in a widely publicized independent report.
Corruption has also emerged as an important issue in the election campaign as rivals accuse each other of taking kickbacks. Voters will elect new members of parliament Feb. 3 who, in turn, will elect a new prime minister.
Corruption is a hot topic on the campaign trails because the fate of previous governments has been decided on this issue. During the past eight years of democracy since the 1988 death of Gen. Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, the last military dictator, three elected governments have been sacked by the country's presidents following allegations of widespread corruption.
"[It] has become an important issue because the government seems to have failed in beginning a cleanup," says a senior Western diplomat in Islamabad, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Experience suggests that corruption is so deep[ly] rooted in Pakistan that just changing one government with another will not solve the problem."
While weeding out corruption is essential for political progress, it's also needed for a healthy economy.
Many businessmen say that graft in business deals has made life difficult for them because kickbacks push up the cost of new investments - as much as 25 percent. "For every four investments of equal size, there's one more to be given in bribes," says one leading businessmen.
Stemming corruption in Pakistan remains difficult for a variety of reasons. Dishonest officials and politicians work in a close nexus and have learned not to leave any evidence. For example, cash bribes obtained as a condition of receiving contracts are often deposited in bank accounts abroad. "The corrupt officials and politicians have learned to leave no trails behind. This makes investigations difficult," the businessman adds.
Pakistan's lax foreign-exchange laws are also partly to blame. Five years ago, the country allowed depositors to open foreign-exchange accounts at local banks and to deposit or retrieve any amount without having to reveal the source of their funds. The result has been the emergence of a convenient but hidden source for illicit money, with the depositors spared from revealing the origin of their money.
Critics say that the interim government needs to act quickly to demonstrate to the average Pakistani that a cleanup operation has begun. Unless such a cleanup begins soon, the extent of public frustration will intensify, Western diplomats say.