Pakistani politicians: fake it to make it

Highlighted and hounded by an insatiable media, Pakistan's ruling class is embroiled in a fake degrees scandal that could oust more than 10 percent of federal and provincial lawmakers and precipitate a mid-term election at a time when weak civilian authorities are already grappling with a rickety economy and robust militancy.

The issue came to the fore late last month, when the Supreme Court ordered the Higher Education Commission to vet the credentials of all 1,170 federal and provincial lawmakers, after more than a dozen MPs were found to have lied about their academic qualifications. Now, barely a day goes by without yet another expose in the press about some lawmaker who faked it to make it.

The academic requirement for parliamentarians was introduced by former President Pervez Musharraf ahead of the 2008 polls. Although President Asif Ali Zardari's government later waived it, the Supreme Court has ruled that the credentials of anyone who was elected in the last round at the ballot box must be checked.

The fallout has produced some eyebrow-raising statements, perhaps none more shocking than the unapologetic utterances of Baluchistan's chief minister, Nawab Aslam Raisani. "A degree is a degree, whether fake or genuine! It makes no difference!" he said prompting outrage from media commentators. Yesterday he said he was surprised by the strong reaction to his comment. "In a lighter mood, I had passed that remark on the hot issue of fake degrees, but television channels and newspapers portrayed it as if I was their supporter," he told The News. Nonetheless, he still maintained that "whether genuine or fake, both are called degrees."

Other embattled lawmakers created a ruckus in Wednesday's session of the Punjab Assembly after political friends and foes alike angrily banded together to blame the media for reporting on colleagues with fake degrees. According to the mainstream Dawn newspaper, legislators sought legal means to muzzle the media and referred to an "unholy alliance between the generals, judges and journalists" to malign politicians. They also demanded that generals, judges and journalists' degrees be verified as well. Several burst into tears while calling for a boycott of television appearances until the owners of the channels apologize to parliamentarians they have "defamed."

While the Pakistani media can -- and often does -- spin a story with few verifiable facts, blaming the messenger might come across as a little self-serving in this case. Several bloggers have already called out the "selfish aims" of politicians trying to thwart inquiries. "I am ashamed to call many of them my leaders," Kalsoom Lakhani wrote on her blog, CHUP.

The scandal appears to cut across party lines, and as such there is growing pressure to quickly pass an amnesty law absolving the accused. The National Assembly's Standing Committee on Education was meeting Thursday to decide whether or not to continue with the verification process in light of the tremendous pressure from political parties.

At the same time, the Election Commission is reportedly mulling criminal charges against lawmakers guilty of forging their degrees, while Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) has called for a lifetime ban on fake degree holders "from contesting elections and holding any public office."

But JI has its reasons for pushing such a penalty; it, like Imran Khan's Tehreek-e-Insaf, both boycotted the 2008 polls and might be banking on a strong showing at any sudden mid-term ballot. But for now, the focus is on ferreting out those with phony academic papers. What happens to them may depend on deals lawmakers from across the political spectrum hatch to save their own party members.

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