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OPINION | Does Asif Ali Zardari's Arrest Smack of Something More Than Crackdown on Corruption?

OPINION | Does Asif Ali Zardari's Arrest Smack of Something More Than Crackdown on Corruption?

Jail is not new for Zardari who has previously spent time in jail on corruption charges, but was not convicted and later on became the country's president from 2008 until 2013.

Pakistan has seen several high-profile arrests this week, starting with Asif Ali Zardari, the former president of Pakistan, who was arrested in Islamabad in the beginning of this week.

He is accused of corruption and money laundering. A high court listening to an extension plea for the pre-arrest bail of Zardari and his sister rejected it, thus prompting their arrest orders by an investigation authority called the National Accountability Bureau (NAB). The two siblings are accused of hiding financial kickbacks in fake accounts.

Jail is not new for Zardari who has previously spent time in jail on corruption charges, but was not convicted and later on became the country's president from 2008 until 2013. He was elected to office after the assassination of his wife, former prime minister Benazir Bhutto in December 2007.

Though Zardari is accused of corruption scandals, the current move against him smells more of politics than the law taking its due course.

The government says NAB is an independent institution but the organisation has had a questionable history. It came into existence during the era of General Pervez Musharraf and ever since has been accused of being used as a tool by different regimes, especially for a witch-hunt over corruption, as being seen in Zardari's case too.

Following Zardari's arrest, the next day, the NAB also arrested another prominent politician, Hamza Shahbaz, the son of Pakistan's former Punjab chief minister Shahbaz Sharif, the current opposition leader of the Pakistani parliament. The accusations against Hamza are of similar vague nature, and he is also being accused of corruption.

Why is the NAB on a crackdown spree against corruption at this moment? Although there are corruption charges that need to be investigated, these actions seem very selective and appear to be more about silencing the country's political opposition.

Zardari and Sharif both represent the two largest parties in parliament, the PPP (Pakistan People's Party and the PML-N (Pakistan Muslim League – Nawaz faction), respectively, and had recently vowed to take to the streets to protest against Pakistan's failing economy due to Imran Khan's poor financial management, since last July, when he became the Prime Minister.

Inflation has crossed over 9 percent, a record-high for the last five years. Khan's government recently announced that it will be opting for a $6 billion bail-out package offered to it by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), after denying for months that it was going to go for such a package. Pakistan has been in the care of the IMF for 22 years out of the last 30.

Given such a poor state of economy, Khan's government also has to pass its first federal budget in the next two weeks that was presented in the parliament this week too. And it appears that the government is cracking down to ensure that it does not meet with political resistance inside parliament and outside on the streets, given the atmosphere is ripe for it as the new budget entails further unpopular decisions, mainly because of the conditions IMF has imposed.

If the government is unable to pass the budget due to the opposition, it may reflect that the government has lost confidence of parliament and, therefore, its mandate to be in office.

But even if some of the political bigwigs are in jail, some of the main leadership is still free and organising to fight back. From the Zardari camp is his son, Bilawal Bhutto.

Bilawal has already taken to Twitter and written that Imran Khan feared he’ll be unable to pass the budget and his government will fall.

Bhutto, who is also the party chairman of the PPP, hinted about his father's arrest too and stressed that coercion will not work and no one with a conscious could vote to increase taxes, inflation and unemployment. “This budget is economic suicide and we cannot let it pass,” he affirmed.

On the other hand is the PML-N leader Maryam Nawaz, daughter of former of the prime minister, who also took to social media and said Hamza Shahbaz’s arrest was nothing more than a distraction. “The government didn’t want people to think about its upcoming budget,” she said, while warning the government.

“Making arrests to distract people from historical failures like the economic survey and budget cannot save you from the rage and fury of the people,” she tweeted on Tuesday, shortly after the arrest of Hamza.

Pakistan's leading English daily Dawn in its latest editorial about the on-going arrests has said that there was little doubt that the political fight “will get messier and uglier” in the coming days.

But if there is one thing that the Pakistan economy needs now more than anything is political stability so investors' confidence that has eroded away due to multiple reasons since the new government came into power can come back and the downslide of the country's economy starts reversing.

But if the situation remains same on the political front and the witch-hunt continues, it is unlikely that there will be any calm in the corridors of power, and the government may find itself in more trouble than it can handle.

(The author is a Pakistani journalist living in exile in France. He tweets @TahaSSiddiqui. Views are personal)