The perception of corruption in Pakistan has worsened since Imran Khan came to power in 2018, according to Transparency International (TI).
In its Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2021, the Berlin-based watchdog ranked the South Asian country 140th out of 180 countries, with 180th being the most corrupt country in the world.
Pakistan was ranked 124th in 2020, 120th in 2019, and 117th in 2018.
TI has been compiling the corruption index since 1995. It is based on 13 different sources that depict perceptions of corruption within the public sector, including experts and business people.
The sources also include the World Bank, the World Economic Forum, and private risk and consulting firms.
According to the CPI 2021, the "deteriorating rule of law" and "state capture" are the main reasons behind a significant rise of corruption in Pakistan.
Before coming to power in 2018, Khan, a populist politician, regularly cited TI's CPI as an "evidence" to malign his political opponents, mainly former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.
Khan's politics continue to revolve around punishing "corrupt politicians," who, according to him, are impeding Pakistan's progress.
Tables have turned
But the corruption perception has become starker since Khan took the reins. Thus, the latest TI report presents a chance for opposition leaders to mock Khan.
Shehbaz Sharif, opposition leader in the National Assembly (Pakistan's lower house of parliament), said in a tweet that Khan's government "has broken all records of corruption in the last 20 years," adding that when his brother Nawaz was in power, corruption had decreased in the country.
Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, a former prime minister associated with the opposition Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz) party, told DW that corruption is all-time high under Khan's government.
He dubbed it "unprecedented" in Pakistan's history.
Zulfiqar Ali Bader, a spokesperson for the Pakistan People's Party chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, said the prime minister must step down after the publication of the CPI report.
But Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry played down the seriousness of the issue and told DW that Pakistan's low CPI score was not due to financial corruption in the country. Still he admitted, "Yes, we need reforms in the areas of the rule of law and state capture as mentioned in the report."
Why is corruption increasing in Pakistan?
Analysts cite a myriad of reasons behind rising corruption in Pakistan.
"Transparency International makes a strong case that one can't divorce anti-corruption issues from the broader issue of democracy. When democracy takes a hit, anti-corruption efforts struggle because it's in strong and robust democracies where you can most expect to see transparency and probity," Michael Kugelman, a South Asia expert at the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars, told DW.
"Pakistan's democratic backsliding, in effect for quite some time, has constrained anti-corruption," he added.
Elaborating on the issue of democratic backsliding, Amber Shamsi, a political analyst and journalist, said the CPI reflects the perceptions related to human rights violations, attacks on journalists and deteriorating rule of law in the country.
"There is no across-the-board accountability in Pakistan. Dozens of opposition figures were accused of corruption and put behind bars, but they have not been prosecuted," she told DW.
But Benazir Shah, a political analyst, says the CPI reports are not always accurate.
"The report is limited [in its scope] because it only takes into account the perception of corruption within the public sector, leaving out the private sector. Also, corruption [rates] within a country vary from city to city and sector to sector, which means that one ranking or score for a country can be misleading," she said.
Learning the hard way
Regardless, the Transparency International report has done a lot of damage to PM Khan's reputation as an "anti-graft crusader." Experts say it could even hurt him in the 2023 general elections.
"Khan's political identity is interwoven with the anti-corruption issue. The new TI report, in that regard, is problematic," according to Kugelman.
"The premier and his allies will seek to shrug off the TI rankings as an anomaly, or as a foreign conspiracy to malign Pakistan. In an ideal world, though, he and his party allies would introspect on the implications of these rankings. They say a lot not just about Pakistan's corruption challenge, but also about the democratic backsliding that exacerbates the corruption challenge," he added.
Khan's failure to revive the country's economy is already causing him political problems. Along with tax increases and higher energy prices, Pakistanis are also facing rising inflation, as the purchasing power of the rupee decreases. Pakistan's inflation rate hit 11.5% last November. The rupee also is also trading at record lows against the dollar.
"Khan's government has failed to deliver. There is no rule of the law [in the country], and he is suppressing opposition parties and curbing civil freedoms," said former PM Abbasi.
But Kugelman says there are no quick fixes to Pakistan's economic problems.
"Khan may have a genuine commitment to combat corruption, but the sheer scale of the problem — not to mention the power of vested interests that don't want a change in the status quo — underscores that this continues to be an uphill battle. Anti-corruption is one of those goals that is so much easier to envision when in the opposition than inside the system. Khan has learned that the hard way," he said.
Edited by: Shamil Shams