Government critics cite Pakistani cabinet's bulk

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 16, 2010; 7:31 PM

ISLAMABAD - On any given day, Pakistani officials cast blame for their government's failings on a rabid press, a hostile judiciary or a conniving army.

Whatever the reason for the problems, one thing seems clear: It is not for lack of manpower at the top.

Public ire is simmering these days over what one news channel referred to as Pakistan's "jumbo-sized" cabinet: It is made up of 61 ministers and advisers, several among them marginally qualified or shadowed by graft allegations.

Alarmed by the tanking economy and vast flood wreckage, Pakistan's powerful army chief and U.S. officials here have zeroed in on the cabinet's weak performance and are pushing President Asif Ali Zardari for shake-ups and slim-downs, according to Pakistani officials. Even insiders in Zardari's Pakistan People's Party privately express frustration about government girth.

Yet despite regular reports that a cabinet "reshuffle" is about to happen, few observers are holding their breath. The cabinet size, political analysts say, reflects the deep-rooted nature of both the ruling party and of governing in Pakistan, a divided nation that often seems on the verge of tearing apart.

The PPP is the only party in Pakistan with a national presence - if small in many places - but its government also depends on a fragile coalition with smaller parties. That means there are ruling party followers who want their regions represented in the cabinet and coalition partners who demand their parties have slots, analysts say.

In Pakistan, where being a federal minister brings clout at the very local level, that translates into votes for the government. Ministers hire friends and family, deliver services to their own villages and hand money to community leaders or landowners - then depend on them to round up voters at election time.

"It's good old party patronage," said one ruling party lawmaker who advocates a smaller cabinet.

The system has also been forged to foster stability, said Anatol Lieven, a Pakistan expert at King's College in London. If the government rewards its local-level followers, those people keep the masses placated. British colonialists who handed bags of gold to tribal chiefs had the same idea, Lieven said.

But it does not quite match the ideas of the United States, which is investing in improving the two-year-old civilian government's performance while also counting on its survival.

"If they make such a mess of government that the population becomes completely exasperated, then they also fail," Lieven said. "There you have in a nutshell why Pakistani politics and government have been so unstable: Because the needs of patronage, which is essential, runs head-on into the needs of government, which is essential."

Even considering the country's population of 170 million, Pakistan's cabinet is bulky. The United States, with a population of 310 million, has 16 Cabinet members. Just fewer than 40 ministers sit in on cabinet meetings in Nigeria, which has a population of about 150 million.

To top it off, Pakistani newspapers have reported recently, many cabinet members do not pay taxes, nor do they seem to make much progress. Nearly three months after the beginning of devastating floods, many victims still haven't received government compensation. Last month, the finance minister said government coffers were running so low that the government might not be able to pay civil servants after two months.

For what it's worth, government officials say they agree the cabinet is too big. They say they are planning to reduce the size in accordance with a constitutional amendment passed by parliament this year, which mandates a cabinet with no more than 49 members.

One senior government official said in an interview Friday that the trim would happen within days, but he also said Zardari and Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gillani did "not want to offend" those on the chopping block. Raza Rabbani, a ruling party senator who oversaw the drafting of the new amendment, said it might happen by next summer.

"Such a drastic cut would automatically disbalance the coalition," Rabbani said. Less than three years after the end of a military dictatorship, he added, inculcating democracy should be more important than cutting poor performers.

But those party members said Zardari, who is known for stubbornness, is resisting changes. He has surrounded himself with a coterie of loyalists, they said, some of whom are considered to rank among the least effective government officials.

Army chief Ashfaq Parvez Kiyani, meanwhile, met with Zardari and Gillani on Saturday. Kiyani demanded three weeks ago that the government get a grip on the economy and corruption, Pakistani and U.S. officials said. In a nation that has been ruled by the military for half its life, speculation is rife that Kiyani's patience is running out, though most analysts and politicians deem a coup unlikely.

What is more likely, political analysts said, is a continuation of the status quo.

"We offer advice," a U.S. official said of recent discussions between Americans and Zardari about government efficiency. "He doesn't listen." Special correspondent Shaiq Hussain contributed to this report.

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