WHO knew our political parties were so strapped for cash? The Election of Commission of Pakistan has released asset statements submitted by parties for the year 2010-2011. For one, these numbers are dated; with elections around the corner, how much wealth parties had a year and a half ago is hardly relevant, and it is entirely unclear why more recent figures have not been either filed by parties or released by the ECP. More interesting still are the numbers themselves. The ruling party, for example, claims to have had a mere Rs0.4m in its bank account at the end of the 2010-2011 financial year; the PML-N’s Punjab chapter apparently had Rs3.6m. And these are just two examples; whether through a desire to downplay their wealth or simply because they haven’t bothered to include all party assets in official or central accounts, most parties have listed values for bank balances and other assets that are difficult to believe, in the same way that statements of personal assets filed by individual politicians are always sources of both shock and amusement.
More worrying even than the reliability of these past numbers are the implications for transparent campaign finance in the upcoming elections. The ECP is developing spending limits and has said that all campaign spending should be routed through accounts created for that purpose. And as this paper has argued before, transparency about both the sources and the uses of funds are important to ensure as level a playing field as is possible. The current ECP is seen as an independent and empowered one, and it has been quite active on the electoral reform front, including involving parliament, political parties and the Supreme Court in the process of formulating a new code of conduct. But new rules on the page will only work along with a shift in the culture and mindset of political parties. As long as the latter continue to operate like personal businesses using multiple undocumented sources of funds rather than as entities that owe the public professional and honest recordkeeping of centralised accounts, elections in Pakistan will continue to be a murky affair.