Former Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari arrives for his bail appeal at Islamabad High Court on June 10. (Farooq Naeem/AFP/Getty Images)

Last August, Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan came to power after a campaign in which he blasted the country’s two major political dynasties as corrupt and vowed to clean up the graft and money-laundering that had long tainted the ruling elite.

Last week, with the arrests of former president Asif Ali Zardari from the Pakistan People’s Party and a nephew of former prime minister Nawaz Sharif from the Pakistan Muslim League, Khan signaled he was starting to fulfill that pledge after being preoccupied for months by economic crises.

“The pressure to stabilize the economy has been relieved. Now I will go after these corrupt politicians,” Khan said in a speech June 10. He said he would form a commission to investigate how former leaders from both parties had plunged the nation into debt.

“No one will dare leave the country in tatters ever again,” he declared.

Pakistan has long been plagued by corruption, driving away foreign investment and siphoning unpaid taxes into the distant bank accounts of bureaucrats and politicians. It is often listed by monitoring groups as among the world’s most corrupt nations, and Pakistanis complain of having to pay bribes to obtain permits, secure government jobs or avoid being jailed for months on petty charges.

With the private economy too small to accommodate the fast-growing populace of 210 million and Pakistan diplomatically isolated by persistent charges of harboring Islamist terrorists, millions of educated Pakistanis are jobless, and public frustration has peaked. 

Leaders from the People’s Party and the Muslim League have long accused each other of corruption, especially in election years. Voters have often switched loyalties, but little institutional or legal reform has resulted. Khan, who ran and won as a reformist outsider, raised fresh public hopes for change.

But current leaders of those parties have denounced Khan’s actions as a witch hunt. They charge that he is using the federal anti-corruption agency as a cudgel to attack his rivals and deflect criticism of his policy failures. 

“The government has arrested political leaders to divert the attention of the masses from its economic terrorism,” Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, the former president’s son and People’s Party chairman, said last week. He said there was “no difference” between Khan’s government and that of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf, who seized power in 1999 and ruled for nearly a decade. 

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former prime minister from the Muslim League, denounced the June 11 arrest of Sharif’s nephew Hamza Shahbaz on charges of hiding financial assets, saying it had added “a new black chapter” to Pakistan’s history. “We are not afraid of accountability, but you need to bring evidence prior to framing charges against anyone.”


Opposition leader Hamza Shahbaz waves to supporters after a court rejected his interim bail, before his arrest outside the court in Lahore on June 11. (Arif Ali/AFP/Getty Images)

The National Accountability Bureau went after Nawaz Sharif last year, prosecuting him for hiding wealth through overseas dealings including luxury London apartments, after a series of Supreme Court hearings in which Khan, then running for office, was his major accuser.

The protracted legal battle severely damaged Sharif’s party. The ex-premier, 69, was convicted in December and is now serving a seven-year prison term. Next, the bureau pursued his brother Shahbaz Sharif, who is out on bail in a corruption case. Last week it pounced on his nephew, a budding party leader. 

Now, the watchdog bureau has trained its sites on the People’s Party, detaining Zardari, 63, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in 2007. The controversial billionaire has been accused and jailed repeatedly — though never convicted — in multiple corruption and kickback cases since the 1990s, earning him the indelible nickname “Mr. Ten Percent.” 

Zardari, newly charged with maintaining fake bank accounts abroad, was taken from his house in the capital as chanting supporters gathered outside; his sister, a provincial legislator, also was arrested. Analysts wondered whether the spate of arrests was a sign of overdue accountability or partisan vendetta. Khan insisted that the accountability bureau is entirely independent.

Bhutto Zardari has announced plans for mass protests, and after decades of rivalry, the People’s Party and the Muslim League are now allies of circumstance. But some observers said the younger party leaders lack the skills and experience to mount a credible revolt.

“The opposition parties can create some headache for the Khan government, but I don’t see any chance of sustained agitation that could dislodge it,” said Hasan Askari Rizvi, a political analyst in Lahore. “People believe both parties have been involved in corruption in the past. I don’t see them coming out on the streets for them.”

Still, despite Khan’s confident rhetoric, Pakistan remains in dire economic straits. Mired in debt and record currency devaluations, his government has been forced to borrow huge sums from China and Saudi Arabia and negotiate a $6 billion bailout package from the International Monetary Fund.

Last week, Khan’s first annual budget was criticized for burdening the impoverished population with belt-tightening measures, including increased taxes and consumer prices.

Whatever the legal outcome of the charges against the Sharif and Zardari families, their fall has badly weakened both parties, which alternately led Pakistan during much of its turbulent 70-year history as a struggling democracy bedeviled by military intervention.

“Both Nawaz and Zardari are in prison, they are ill, and it’s almost the end of their era,” said Ayaz Amir, a former Muslim League legislator and commentator. Both parties, he said, “are in serious trouble. They can do nothing but issue statements.”

Farhatullah Babar, a longtime People’s Party politician, said he doubts the new cases against Zardari will be able to “stand the judicial test.” But the far greater concern, he said, is where the deepening economic woes and political schisms will leave the country.

“Inflation is in double digits, and people are being thrown out of jobs,” Babar said. “Whether the government or the opposition has the last hurrah, the people have already suffered much.”

Constable reported from Kabul.