Pakistan: Now or Never?
Perspectives on Pakistan
Over the past few weeks there has been political brouhaha in Pakistan – played out daily on the nation’s front pages and interview programs — as dozens of federal and provincial lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees. The investigation of office-holders’ university qualifications has turned into a white-hot, nationwide controversy, with the Supreme Court ordering the Election Commission to verify the academic qualifications of 1,065 of the country’s 1,170 members of provincial and national assemblies. So far 46 lawmakers have been found to be holding fake university degrees, and many more are under investigation. There has been speculation that if too many lawmakers are disqualified for holding fake degrees the country may have to midterm elections.
The requirement for academic qualification is rooted in a controversial law imposed by the former military ruler Pervez Musharraf in 2002, which made a bachelor’s degree, or equivalent, mandatory for those running for office. While the law was justified by Musharraf as a move intended to draw in more qualified lawmakers, it was criticized as a ploy to disqualify scores of political opponents, many of whom were veterans of Pakistan’s feudal and tribal political system but lacked the necessary qualifications. The law was also seen as un-democratic in country with almost half the population illiterate, barring the great majority of the population from running for office. Echoing this view, the Supreme Court struck down the law in April 2008. However, some politicians had already acquired fake degrees to run for the February 2008 elections, and their fraudulent degrees have now become a heated issue.
Analysts have pointed out that fake degree debacle is, to an extent, another instance of the media shamelessly exploiting political scandals to pump up their television ratings. The media’s vigilant and – some say — overzealous coverage has been a key reason for the intensity of the uproar. The issue has made front-page headlines for days, and has been a central theme in popular local talk shows.
The media circus, however, is only one angle of the story. As a number of writers have argued, there is a genuinely strong reaction to the issue from various parts of civil society. A Pakistani lawyer, Babar Sattar, writes, “This scandal isn’t about educational qualification or whether or not such qualification was desirable or legitimate in the first place. It is about lack of personal integrity, corrupt ethical values, use of deceit to achieve a personal end and shamelessly justifying wrongdoing when caught red-handed.” In a country where feudal and dynastic parties have dominated the political scene, the fake degree scandal seems to have struck a nerve, exposing deeply rooted anger at the relentless subversion of the system.
Pakistani education authorities are verifying university degrees of members of parliament amid fears that scores of them could be disqualified for holding “fake degrees”, leading to “mini mid-term elections” less than three years after general elections were held in the country.
Large scale by-elections could trigger political uncertainty in the country which is presently confronted with growing threat of Islamist militancy and is struggling to bolster a weak economy.
Changing the name of Pakistan’s North West Frontier Province (NWFP) to “Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa” has triggered a new debate over whether other ethnic communities have the right to claim and win separate regions.
Parliament last week approved the new name, reflecting the Pashtuns’ demographic dominance of the province.
History never repeats itself exactly, but it does leave signposts. So with India and Pakistan settling into a familiar pattern of accusation and counter-claim following the Mumbai attacks, it’s worth remembering what happened after the December 2001 assault on India’s parliament brought the two countries to the brink of war. Or more to the point — thinking about the less remembered follow-up attack on an Indian army camp in Kaluchak in Jammu and Kashmir in May 2002 that nearly propelled India over the edge.
Following the attack on parliament that India blamed on the Laskhar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed, both Pakistan-based militant groups, India mobilised its troops all along the border, prompting a similar mobilisation on the Pakistani side. Then Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf went on national television in January to promise to crack down on Islamist groups; the activities of Lashkar-e-Taiba and Jaish-e-Mohammed were curbed, and tensions abated somewhat.