Pakistan, which is preparing for crucial general elections next month, has one of the most corrupt governments and societies on earth. Indeed, according to the anti-corruption campaign group, Transparency International, Pakistan finished as the 37th most corrupt state in a list of 174 countries, tied with such luminaries as Azerbaijan, Nigeria, Kenya and Nepal, in 2011.
Thus, it would hardly be surprising to realize that many Pakistani politicians are quite rich – but the magnitude of the wealth some of them have amassed might raise some eyebrows, if not alarms.
Some 90 million registered voters will select candidates to fill nearly 1,000 seats in the National and Provincial Assemblies. The overwhelming majority of them couldn't even dream of attaining the wealth of some of the politicians they will be casting ballots for.
Asif Ali Zardari
Consider the incumbent President Asif Ali Zardari, the widower of former prime minister Benazir Bhutto, whose son, Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari, will lead the ruling Pakistan People’s Party in the election.
According to various sources, Asif Ali Zardari is the second or third wealthiest person in Pakistan, with a fortune estimated at $1.8 billion. That estimate, by Daily Pakistan, dates from 2005 – which means that by now, his riches are probably significantly greater.
Among other lucrative assets, Zardari (either directly or through front companies) owns at least eight properties in Britain (including a 365-acre, 20-bedroom luxury estate in Rockwood, Surrey), other properties in France, Dubai, a mansion in the U.S., several lavish homes in Pakistan, and stakes in sugar mills across Pakistan.
Zardari’s wealth is believed to have been greatly accelerated by his marriage to Benazir Bhutto, which granted him instant access to the highest levels of government and corporations, both domestic and international. After his wife became prime minister in 1988 (following the mysterious death of former leader General Zia ul-Haq in a plane crash), Zardari was given the job of cabinet “investment minister,” a post Benazir created for him.
In 2007 alone, Zardari’s Swiss bank account reportedly received $60 million through offshore companies under his name.
In 2012, as president, Zardari’s massive wealth (and the alleged corruption that enabled it) was at the center of a fierce struggle between Pakistan’s judiciary and the civilian government.
In July 2012, the Supreme Court (apparently with the support of Pakistan’s powerful military) demanded that Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani begin a probe into Zardari’s assets in cooperation with Swiss authorities to determine the reportedly fraudulent origins of the president’s funds. Gilani (the nominal head of the government) refused, citing that as sitting president Zardari enjoyed immunity from prosecution. That stance earned Gilani a contempt charge, leading to his eventual resignation.
Critics have long mocked Zardari as “Mr. Ten Percent” – a reference to payments he allegedly scored in a multitude of kickbacks over the years. But all these illicit deals have come at a heavy price – Zardari has served two prison terms and may again face serious criminal charges of embezzlement and financial misconduct.
Zardari’s son, Bilawal, the new head of the PPP, doesn't face any criminal charges, and will likely inherit his father’s immense wealth. Bilawal could also become Pakistan’s next leader.
Another former Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, who leads the principal opposition party, Pakistan Muslim League-N, also enjoys a very healthy bank account.
According to Daily Pakistan, Sharif’s family own assets estimated at a minimum $1.4 billion – apparently generated by their interests in steelmaking and paper mill businesses as well as land in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the Middle East -- making them the fourth wealthiest clan in the country. Sharif also owns a bewildering array of luxurious properties in Pakistan as well as stakes in companies from Lahore to London.
Sharif, who spent several years in the early 2000s in exile in Saudi Arabia, reportedly enjoys contacts with high-level government and business figures in the kingdom.
The dark horse candidate, former cricketer Imran Khan of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf party is relatively poor compared to Zardari and Sharif, but he’s not starving.
Celebritynetworth.com estimates Khan’s fortune at $50 million. Part of that money likely comes from salary and endorsements he earned as a top-flight cricket star, but the majority likely hails from his landownership in Pakistan.
An even darker horse is former army chief and ex-President Pervez Musharraf who ostensibly leads the Pakistan Muslim League (Q).
Musharraf, who has recently returned to Pakistan after self-imposed exile in London and Dubai, is reportedly a billionaire, although the source of his wealth is a mystery.
According to a report in Pakistan’s News International newspaper, Musharraf has acquired a handsome portfolio of offshore bank accounts (in Dubai and UK) in addition to land he owns in Pakistan and elsewhere.
However, it's unclear how a man who didn't come from a wealthy family and who lives on an army pension could have accumulated hundreds of millions of dollars.
A spokesman for Musharraf told the News that, unlike Sharif and Zardari, his boss doesn't hold any secret foreign bank accounts. In addition, he claimed that Musharraf earns money from speaking engagements around the world – citing that he and Bill Clinton are among the highest-paid speakers in the world.
Of course, Pakistan isn't alone in having billionaires holding the levers of power. Russia’s President Vladimir Putin reportedly is worth some $70 billion, while Sonia Gandhi, the leader of India’s Congress Party (which makes her the de factor ruler of India) is also in the billionaire range.
Even in western countries, billionaires like Silvio Berlusconi and Mitt Romney have either led their states or tried to.
But Pakistan is awash in poverty, which makes the wealth of its tiny political elite that much more extraordinary.
According to the United Nations, 22.3 percent of the population of 180 million live below the poverty line. The UN’s Human Development Index estimated that more than 60 percent of Pakistan’s population lives on less than $2 per day, while 22.6 percent live of less than $1.
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.