ISLAMABAD – 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 Ali Asif 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 Islamic 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 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 10 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."
The National Accountability Bureau went after Nawaz Sharif last year, prosecuting him for hiding wealth through overseas dealings including luxury London apartments, after 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.