Elite democracy

Published April 7, 2016
The writer works with the Free and Fair Election Network.
The writer works with the Free and Fair Election Network.

Do we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people? No. It is of the rich, by the poor, for the rich. The poor are a vehicle to vote in the rich through ‘democratic elections’. The arrangement suits the state establishment that requires a dispensation with democratic credentials to manage political institutions. Its past adventures in directly managing political institutions have led to public dissonance.

The use of money and the role of the moneyed in elections and politics have increased to an extent that the less endowed stand almost no chance of contesting, let alone winning, an election. The kind of money that has crept into politics is evident from the declarations of assets and liabilities that parliamentarians have to submit to the Election Commission every year.

The cumulative value of assets declared by 894 esteemed members for 2013-14 amounts to Rs86.56 billion, which includes Rs47.23bn of immoveable and Rs35.85bn of moveable assets in Pakistan and Rs3.46bn of immoveable assets outside the country. The average value of assets for a member comes to Rs96.92 million. Strangely, the elected representatives are not legally required to declare their annual income and taxes they have paid, though they submit it once at the time of nomination for elections.

Examine: Panama Papers: Secret accounts of the rich and powerful

This data is not exhaustive. While the gazette for 2014-15 has yet to be published, the one issued for 2013-2014 includes declarations of the assets and liabilities of 277 out of 342 members of the National Assembly, 104 members of the Senate, 25 of 124 members of the KP Assembly, 251 of 371 members of the Punjab Assembly, and all members of the Sindh and Balochistan legislatures. The value of total assets will only increase if the data for 180 MPAs is included. The average value of assets may, however, fluctuate. The value of assets in these declarations is based on self-estimates by members. The actual value may be far more than what is declared.

The kind of money that has crept into politics is evident from the parliamentarians’ declarations of assets and liabilities

Of 894 members whose assets were available, only 227 had assets valuing less than Rs10m, 452 between Rs10m and Rs100m, 207 between Rs100m and Rs1,000m and eight more than Rs1,000m. The total value of assets of members in the National Assembly is Rs35.91bn, the Senate Rs16.41bn, Punjab Assembly Rs19.98bn, Sindh Rs11.43bn, KP Rs210.41m (of 25 out of 99 members) and Balochistan Rs2.59bn.

A party-wise analysis of the value of assets only strengthens the argument that the rich and mighty are the best choices for most political parties. The cumulative value of assets held by 458 members of the national and provincial assemblies belonging to the PML-N whose declarations were available comes to Rs48.19bn, 164 members of PPP to Rs17.55bn, 67 members of PTI to Rs5.89bn, 50 members of MQM to Rs1.41bn, 13 members of PML-F to Rs1.83bn, 15 members of ANP to Rs1.07bn, 28 members of JUI-F to Rs597.34m, 19 members of PkMAP to Rs320.33m, 15 members of NP to Rs370.44m and so on. The 22 independents in the national and provincial assemblies whose declarations were available hold assets amounting to a whopping Rs3.31bn. However, there are exceptions. For instance, there are 29 members of national and provincial assemblies belonging to all major parties whose assets are less than a million rupees.

The point is not to raise concern about the hard-earned, inherited or gifted assets of members; it is to show that the minority moneyed class is representing a majority whose average monthly income, according to the government’s Household Integrated Economic Survey conducted in 2013-14, is Rs30,999. The survey has examined key distributions across five standardised per capita consumption quintiles, each containing 20pc of the population. The first quintile contains the poorest 20pc and the fifth the richest. The average monthly income of people in the first quintile is Rs16,583, the second Rs20,436, the third Rs24,188, the fourth Rs29,255 and the last Rs53,001. Clearly, a majority of members of the elected houses are not in sync with the needs of the poverty-strewn citizenry.

Election is essential but not sufficient for democracy. The quality of representation is at the heart of democratic culture and institutions. The assets analysis only establishes that the electoral system is not ensuring genuine representation. The elected houses should not only be representative of the ethnic, geographic and religious diversities but also of the income classes.

Unfortunately, the framers of the Constitution prescribed reserved seats for peasants, workers and women, who together form the majority of the population, and that too in local government institutions. Ironic indeed but affirmative action was recommended for the majority income class when in fact it should be for the minority income class — the rich.

Incisive reforms are needed to enhance representation of the majority who belong to low and middle income groups. The issue can be dealt with through radical political reforms by making it mandatory for political parties to give tickets to people with limits on maximum annual income and assets, including 50pc tickets to women and 10pc to non-Muslim minorities. Some reserved seats may be allocated for the rich; otherwise they can be allowed to contest for Senate through direct election on a proportional representation basis with the province as the constituency. The proponents of democracy who are in power always hide behind constitutional rights and entitlements to defend the case of the rich and the mighty and not the poor and the downtrodden.

Unless electoral and political reforms are radical, the citizenry will continue to wait for mega investments in education, health, clean water, housing, farm-to-market roads, agriculture, workers, the welfare system for women, farmers, labourers, pensioners, the aged, minorities and the disabled.

The writer works with the Free and Fair Election Network.

Published in Dawn, April 7th, 2016



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