Pakistan's Fake-Degree Scandal

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K.M. Chaudary / AP

People rally against fake degrees in Lahore on June 29, 2010. Scores of Pakistani lawmakers may lose their seats over allegedly fake academic credentials

For Pakistan's parliamentarians, the humiliation is becoming something of a ritual. On the country's sensationalistic news channels, fresh faces fill the screen each day. Within seconds, the graphics appear — a red stamp over the portraits, emblazoned with two words: "fake degree." As the newscasters struggle to suppress smirks, they explain that these are the latest entries in an ever expanding list that could see parliamentarians not just lose their seats but also possibly face jail time. And the higher the number rises, some observers say, so does the prospect of a rebalancing of power in the legislature — and a change in government.

In June, the Supreme Court and a parliamentary committee asked the country's 1,170 parliamentarians to prove that they are bona fide university graduates. Strangely enough, the court is asking the legislators to comply with a law that is no longer on the books, struck down as unfair just before its unpopular author, former President General Pervez Musharraf, left office upon the election of a new government in 2008. (The law was inequitable, said the country's Attorney General at the time, because with adult literacy at only 55%, nearly half the country would be ineligible to run for office.) Nevertheless, the court wants to know if the current lawmakers, who ran for office while the law was in effect, abided by its rules. And that's the root of the current rancor — and condescending amusement.

Alleged violators of the defunct law range across the political spectrum. So far, the list of suspected fake-degree holders includes two senior Cabinet ministers and others close to President Asif Ali Zardari. In one of the cases, a provincial lawmaker from former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif's Pakistan Muslim League–N claimed to have obtained a master's degree in 2002, graduated from college in 2006 and finished high school in 2007. He should be "disqualified for stupidity, not fraud," Salmaan Taseer, the governor of Punjab, commented on Twitter. Another lawmaker claimed to have graduated from high school at the age of 10, prompting local wits to dub him "Doogie Howser, MNA [Member of the National Assembly]." And still another claimed to hold three degrees, each with a different surname.

For some, the situation was no surprise. "It all makes sense now," says Marvi Memon, a prominent opposition lawmaker and a graduate of the London School of Economics. "For the past two years, I had trouble believing that I was sitting in a parliament full of graduates." For others, however, this was all too much ado about a piece of paper. "My position is clear," Nawab Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of Baluchistan, growled at a gaggle of reporters. "A degree is a degree, whether it's fake or real!"

The cynicism is not unwarranted. Musharraf's original law, even though it appeared to put education on a pedestal, was also a craftily disguised device used by the dictator to exclude some of his opponents. It accredited Musharraf's allies in the religious parties — many of whose madrasah experiences were somehow certified as being equivalent to a master's or even a Ph.D. — while disqualifying local politicians with years of experience earning the trust of their constituents.

Zardari's ruling Pakistan People's Party (PPP) tried to make that point with Jamshed Dasti, of southern Punjab, whose complicated case came up for judgment shortly before the controversial ruling in June. Dasti had been hauled before the Supreme Court to be tested on claims that he completed a master's in Islamic studies. But when the judges asked Dasti to name the first 15 chapters of the Koran, no reply was forthcoming. "How about the first two?" one judge inquired. Dasti's silence endured. He was asked to resign and save himself the indignity of going to jail. But far from becoming a pariah, Dasti was elevated to the post of special adviser to the Prime Minister on livestock affairs. Within days, he was renamed as the PPP's candidate in a special election for his vacated seat. Development funds were lavished on his constituency as politicians were flown in to campaign for him. He won and has become even more popular in his constituency. "Our Dasti still wins," Zardari bellowed at a recent speech.

As far as Dasti's electorate and party were concerned, it didn't matter that he had lied about his education. "What matters to people in his area is that Dasti is responsive to their needs," says Kashif Abbasi, a prominent television-talk-show host. "There, he's known as 'Rescue15,'" a reference to the Pakistani equivalent of the emergency phone number 911. "When they call with a problem, he turns up. To the ordinary Pakistanis, who are mostly illiterate, it doesn't matter that Dasti doesn't have a degree."

Politicians complain they are being unfairly singled out. "The percentage of fake degrees is much higher in legal professions and even medicine," says Khawaja Muhammad Asif, a senior opposition lawmaker. "All those who claim to be graduates must submit themselves to scrutiny, then we'll see how fake our so-called educated elite is." Members of the PPP go further, sensing a plot to discredit politicians. "The unconstitutional degree requirement is being invoked by those who have constantly assaulted our fledgling democracy," says Farahnaz Ispahani, a Wellesley graduate. "It seems that this has been a planned campaign." The Supreme Court, another PPP politician alleges, has engineered the scandal to open up yet another front in its ceaseless attempts to overthrow Zardari.

The implications of the scandal are unclear, but they appear to have led to what seems to be intimidation of those examining the authenticity of diplomas. The task of verifying the parliamentarians' degrees was handed to the Higher Education Commission, headed by Javaid Laghari, a former PPP Senator with a Ph.D. from the State University of New York. When Laghari initiated the process, his friends say that he was urged by one high-ranking official to bring it to a halt or at least slow it down for a year. Laghari refused. Last week, his brother was picked up on corruption charges and remains in custody (Laghari's brother denies any wrongdoing). And on Friday, for no stated reason, police raided Laghari's own village farmhouse, breaking doors and taking eight servants into custody.

So far, 37 degrees have been established as fake and 183 as real, with the diplomas of every single parliamentarian eventually being examined. If the roughly 20% ratio holds, says a senior member of the Higher Education Commission, "a government could lose its majority, be it the Punjab government or the federal government." If the ratio rises, there could be crisis that paves the way for a new general election. What remains unknown is what the Supreme Court will do with the results of the examination: Jail the offenders or throw them out of office? If the purge is substantial, new elections may have to be held.

While the PPP mulls the fate of its government, it can take comfort in the fact that its future leader, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, just graduated from Oxford with a degree in history. But at the age of 21, the only son of President Zardari and his slain wife Benazir will have to wait another four years before he is eligible to stand for public office.