Let’s Talk About the Money

2 Jul

The Representation of The Peoples Act, 1976 (and not a recent Supreme Court ruling) mandates that candidates must not spend more than Rs1.5 million on their electoral campaigns for the National Assembly. All National Assembly candidates are required to maintain a separate bank account for electoral finances and submit receipts to their returning officer for expenses incurred in the campaigning process to ensure that they do not exceed the amount specified. But this number is an inconsequential joke for Pakistani politicians and is unknown to most Pakistanis who, under the same act, have the power to scrutinise any candidate’s electoral expenses. In April 2012, the Supreme Court in its ruling on the Constitutional Petition No 87 of 2011, upheld these rules and directed the Election Commission to monitor candidates’ election expenses.

The rules of electoral finance lie at the very heart of the democratic process. These regulations are put in place to ensure that elections, by virtue of their cost, do not become the exclusive domain of the filthy rich. Our criminal neglect of electoral finance is one of the reasons for the kind of democracy we live in. Requiring the Election Commission to implement this Supreme Court verdict will require capacity that the Election Commission does not possess. But this is where friends of democracy should be directing their energies if we really want to change the quality and calibre of those in power.

The lacklustre leadership in control of the country consists of those people who have the money and clout to contest and win elections, which in Pakistan are neither won nor contested on the basis of competence or the policy views held by the candidates. Instead, contested on the basis of power and money, those that have neither, stand spectacularly slim chances of ever winning an election. So, we can automatically write-off most of the upstanding members of society. Therefore, until we change (or implement) the rules of financing the electoral game, we are likely to end up with the corrupt but powerful in the national driving seat.

What could be sadder than a country that has to resort to thinking of who is the least corrupt, least dishonest or least incompetent when trying to decide who should hold one of the highest offices in the land? Pakistan took a loud collective groan the day Raja Pervaiz Ashraf was elected prime minister. He is the man most Pakistanis associate with the energy crisis, unfulfilled promises and unlawful financial gain at the expense of millions of people who live their lives between loadshedding cycles. Even amongst the most ardent supporters of democracy, there is a deep sense of discomfort with the candidate that the democratic process has put on the prime ministerial throne.

As a result, some are yearning for the boots and others are calling for early elections. But we have tried the boots before and they don’t fit this country well. We could have new elections but they are likely to put more ‘Raja Rentals’ in parliament. The problem lies not with just this man who is now prime minister, but the large majority of those who (dis)grace the halls of parliament. Alternatives to Ashraf included a health minister accused of involvement in a narcotics scam, a former defence minister on whose watch we saw the largest number of plane crashes in the history of Pakistan but never once a public apology and a foreign minister who can afford to buy extremely expensive handbags but whose husband reportedly cannot afford to pay electricity bills.

Hardly an inspirational cabal of leaders. Unfortunately, these and more like them are the only options we have. So those of us who do not suffer from amnesia and believe that democracy is the only sustainable solution for Pakistan should spend less time complaining about ‘unrealistic’ electoral laws and put more effort towards educating citizens about having them implemented. Changing the rules of the money game in elections can be a powerful tool for changing the face of democratic politics in Pakistan.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 3rd, 2012.


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