Causes of Political Corruption in Pakistan

Corruption is one of the greatest challenges of the contemporary world. It undermines good government, fundamentally distorts public policy, leads to the misallocation of resources, harms the private sector and private sector development and particularly hurts the poor[1] (Corruption Perceptions Index 2010, 2010)

In this study, we will be focusing on the causes of corruption in the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. We will start by defining corruption, as it is seen in the developing world, and then break into identifying various causes, with regard to Pakistan’s socio-economic make-up and history. Corruption appears as a multi-headed hydra, with a vast array of connotations that do not allow it to be analytically functional unless it is narrowed down. By focusing particularly on the political aspect of corruption, we will attempt to reconcile and link past occurrences with the presence of this phenomenon in the modern-day government of the subcontinent, while also touching on the concept of corruption repeatedly throughout the work. Henceforward, for the reader’s ease, political corruption will be referred to as simply, ‘corruption’.

Let’s begin by analyzing Pakistan’s history. After the original struggle for survival, and subsequent development of economy, Pakistan rode the post-1949 Korean War-boom and seemed to enter into what we may call a ‘golden age’. As confidence grew, so did over-spending and bigger-than-budget planning that laid the foundation for many of the government’s future problems. With the vaulting economic development of this period came careless spending on the country’s resources, unlimited expenditure and foreign-exchange crises. Simultaneously, the masses were losing respect for their political elite. Honesty was no longer an integral part of public life. (Griffiths, 1959)

Since first being included in 1995, Pakistan has consistently performed poorly on the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) of Transparency International, and is among the countries with the most perceived corruption each year. According to the 2007 CPI report Pakistan scored 2.4[2].

To evaluate Pakistan’s position today, we see that out of the 178 countries evaluated in the CPI 2010, Pakistan stands at #143, scoring a dismal 2.3/10. What may have caused this continued political decline? One apparent factor may be the lack of political stability. Before East Pakistan’s secession in 1971, there was a clear dearth of capable leadership in that province. Contrastingly, in West Pakistan, there was a case of ‘too many leaders’. Cooperation was not the Punjab’s strong suit. A succession of short-lived governments followed, with Liaquat Ali Khan, Khawaja Nazimuddin, Muhammad Ali Bograh, Chaudhri Muhammad Ali, I.I. Chundrigar, Suhrawardy and Firoz Khan Noon (Griffiths, 1959). Writing in 1959, Griffiths says,

“The country was being eaten up with corruption and anti-social activity at all levels. In all my recent travels in Asia I have nowhere seen corruption quite so widespread, and going so high up, as I saw it in Pakistan…”

Large-scale profiteering, hoarding, and racketeer-ing outstripped that seen in other parts of Asia. Prices rose, the public grew temperamental, and it became a case of the rich get richer as the poor get poorer. ‘Corruption’ became very closely identifiable with the Klitgaard (1988) definition: “[A corrupt official] deviates from the formal duties of a public role because of private-regarding (per-sonal, close family, private clique) pecuniary or status gains; or violates rules against the exercise of certain private-regarding behavior” (Omar Azfar, 2001).

When Liaquat Ali Khan was assassinated, the series of short, unstable governments damaged the ‘body politic of the country, unleashing the forces of adventurism and palace intrigues’. This shows us that the political turmoil in Pakistan left room for corruption. Loopholes were found as administrations shifted, each with its own priorities, budget shifts. During the exit of one administrative structure and the entry of the next, there was no uniform method of control, funds were thrown around with carelessness, and as the young country was so busy focusing on survival, imposing a check on its various institutions, ministers, and servants was not prioritized. (Khan, 2005)

Why does corruption exist, and what can be done about it? When is it in an individual public official’s favor to be corrupt? Seemingly, when the prospective profits of being corrupt are high, and when little or no internal-control structure is in place. This may come about when a civil servant has the unchecked authority to issue an important permit or license, when the cost of being found guilty is negligible, if the very possibility of being brought to account is improbable, or if the official’s wage is low (Omar Azfar, 2001).

This idea, that authority, or the ability & power to be corrupt,  plays a key role in influencing individuals to engage in organizational corruption is echoed in many studies on the topic, including McKendall & Wagner (1997), which lays stress on ‘‘the context or the environment that makes a possible course of action feasible’’ (Vadera, 2008)

With regards to government, an unequal distribution of power is a frequent occurrence in Pakistan’s history. M. Asghar Khan describes Field Marshal M. Ayub Khan’s rule under martial law as an “unbridled dictatorship”. He also makes reference to Ayub’s “continuous refusal to share power”.

Iskander Mirza, President from 1955-1958, during his term manipulated the positions of different political parties, making four ministries fall in sequence, abrogated the constitution, and dissolved the assemblies before abolishing all political parties and ultimately, declaring martial law. Even in the case of the 1970 elections, West Pakistan, lead by Bhutto was unwilling to share power with the majority-winner in the National Assembly, East Pakistani Mujib-ur-Rehman.

In September 1978, after initiating a military coup, Zia-ul-Haq took over as president, in addition to his duties as chief martial law administrator and chief of army staff. In 1979, he extended his tenure as chief of army staff, and when this extension period ended, he retained the post without any formal, publicized extension (Khan, 2005)

Between 1990 and 1999, four different democratically-elected governments held power under the same two political leaders (U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center)[3]. This is a clear example of the concentration of power that political leaders in Pakistan had now become accustomed to wresting for themselves.

Rose-Ackerman implies that competition between politicians as well as between bureaucrats would minimize corruption in government. If citizens can replace politicians, or easily reapply for bureaucratic privileges from different officials, individual officials have fewer incentives to engage in corruption (Jackman, 2002).

Aside from the idea that a large amount of authority concentrated into the hands of one individual is a factor leading to corruption, let us now analyze another factor: the integration of corruption into a society’s framework, such that society as a whole considers it a norm, and promotes it.

Corruption may originate from social norms that emphasize gift-giving and family or clan-based loyalty, as opposed to rule of law (Jackman, 2002).

To ensure that anti-corruption measures are effective, a level of commitment is required of the political leaders of a country. They must sponsor and uphold these measures, and if this support is lacking, then even the most elaborate and well-designed techniques will be useless (Quah, 1999).

            So how does Pakistan fit into this? Keith Callard, in his “The Political Stability of Pakistan” states:

“It cannot be stated too strongly that at every stage party loyalties in Pakistan have proved completely unreliable. A mixture of patronage and coercion has succeeded in reducing the status of most members of legislatures to that of puppets who can be manipulated at will by those who have power and money.” (Callard, 1956)

In several instances, Pakistan’s central and provincial legislatures’ view of their place has been disparaged. Throughout the history of this country, the legislatures of Punjab, Sindh and East Bengal have been illogically suspended by act of the executive for time periods stretching to eighteen months. The Constituent Assembly has been, in the past, told firmly that is no longer allowed to function. Major decisions have not been allowed to reach the legislatures so that they may be discussed effectively (Callard, 1956).

Griffiths relates the story of a senior officer who complained that his staff wasn’t performing as per their duty.

“Many had stopped doing a decent day’s work… Most of my-officers were doing an hour’s work a day, or two hours if I was lucky. If I took them to task, they at once took shelter behind the wing of the particular Minister whose favorites they happened to be’.” (Griffiths, 1959).

Furthermore, the public perceives the judiciary as part of the corrupt governing apparatus.

Anti-corruption proceedings are not trusted as impartial. Directed mainly against the government’s political opposition, and insignificant civil servants, they neglect to scrutinize military officials. Also, the National Reconciliation Ordinance (October 2007) has granted blanket immunity for past corrupt actions, shielding many public officials and members of the government from prosecution (U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center).

Corruption has been commonly referred to as one of the numerous evils born of economic underdevelopment. To those who view Third World underdevelopment as a direct result of capitalist exploitation, corruption is one of the many socio-political consequences, along with political authoritarianism. Similarly, liberal economic theory relates the prevalence of corruption with regard to economic underdevelopment. Economic decline and economic crises are common explanations to increases in corruption. Various statistics have been gathered to demonstrate that the level of corruption varies negatively with the level of economic prosperity. In other words, as a country grows richer, the level of corruption decreases (Amundsen, 1997).

Taking into account economic underdevelopment’s close relation to corruption, it is easy to see how this may play a major role in influencing corruption in Pakistan. Currently ranked 141 out of 177 countries assessed in the UNDP Human Development Report, Pakistan achieved only 2 percent economic growth during 2008-2009; just keeping pace with an equitable level of population growth. An estimated 36 percent of the population continues to live below the poverty line and almost 50 percent are illiterate, including two-thirds of all women. Infant mortality rates are as high as 97 per 1,000 live births, and maternal mortality stands at about 600 deaths per 100,000. A 2008 UN joint assessment estimated that 45 million people across the country are severely food-insecure, reflective of a mounting and multifaceted food security crisis. (World Food Programme) [4]

Let’s take into view one factor that seems to combine all the above: the role of the military in Pakistani affairs. In large part, Pakistan’s history is a story of partnership, partnership between the army and the bureaucracy. Together, the two have ruled the nation, and  “have successfully kept public representatives away from their legitimate role” (Khan, 2005).

Several military regimes have come to power in Pakistan after conducting a coup. Despite promises and superficial gestures, they have never managed to deliver what the country needs most: long-term economic prosperity or political stability. By consistently skewing the distribution of wealth and income, not only have they made the development of effective political parties impossible, but they have also undermined the notion of an independent judiciary in Pakistan and served to further emphasize the hidden weaknesses of the state (Ganguly, 2002).

In conclusion, it is possible to see a sort of repetitive cycle in the discussion of Pakistani corruption. Until decisive measures are taken, and internal control is made a top priority, it is unlikely that the spread of corruption will cease.


[1] Transparency International, http://www.transparancy.de/mission.html (Dec. 15th, 1998).

[2] Transparency International,

http://transparency.org/policy_research/surveys_indices/cpi/2007) (Dec 19th, 2010)

[3] U4 Anti-Corruption Resource Center  http://www.u4.no/helpdesk/helpdesk/query.cfm?id=174 (Dec. 19, 2010)

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