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Why the corrupt win

June 05, 2016

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The writer heads the School of Public Policy at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.
The writer heads the School of Public Policy at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

IN a lecture given in 2014, entitled ‘Finance and Opportunity in India’, globally renowned economist and current governor of the Reserve Bank of India, Raghuram Rajan, dealt with the subject of why the corrupt win elections in India.

He posited that, given the provision of public goods and services is poor, “the system tolerates corruption because the street-smart politician is better at making the wheels of bureaucracy creak in favour of his constituents [...] a government job here, an FIR registered there, a land right honoured somewhere else; for this, he gets the gratitude of his [poorer] voters, and ... their vote.”

Rajan’s argument could apply to Pakistan.

Rajan noted that while well-intentioned politicians occasionally arise — intent upon reforming the system — voters prefer a ‘fixer’ over a ‘reformer’. This, he argued, is because while the reformist is busy fighting the system, those in poverty cannot do without patronage. Voters also carry the weight of history, and are sceptical that a single person is capable of reforming an entire system.

Rajan’s hypothesis helps explain the voting behaviour of rural Pakistanis; but what about our cities with their large middle class? Do urbanites vote for help at the thana or kutchery, or to seek a job? No. It is, perhaps, even possible that the majority of urban voters do not know the candidates for whom they vote.

Evidence suggests that in 2008, the urban middle class voted in large numbers, not only for candidates calling for reforms, but also for those who didn’t seem keen on reformation. What issues, then, did supporters of the latter vote for?

The issue of out-of-school children joining the likes of the Chotoo gang in districts such as Rajanpur does not worry urbanites. Similarly, footage of those dying in Thar also raises no alarm amongst them. The urban middle class, disappointed with public schooling and healthcare, opted out of such public services decades ago. They are not concerned with the quantity or quality of such services.


We cannot have clean elections without campaign fund reform.


Issues such as traffic congestion and power outages, however, do bother them. So they vote for metros, signal-free corridors, and promises of round-the-clock electricity. When it comes to reforming the system, this class also carry their own historical baggage: ‘kuch nahein ho ga’.

Rajan’s theories, then, do not fit the typical voting behaviour of urban Pakistanis. Why is it that the urban middle class votes for candidates with tainted reputations? One possibility is that voters may not have enough of a choice. Quite often, the choice is between one tainted candidate and another. Why is there a dearth of ‘clean’ candidates contesting elections? The most likely answer is that they do not have the huge capital required to compete.

Barring notable exceptions, the amount of money needed to contest elections is typically beyond the reach of a ‘clean’ individual. This leaves the field wide open for candidates with questionable means of earning. Political parties, in need of campaign financing, are forced to take in and field people with questionable funds. This happens often when it dawns on the ‘reformist’ that attaining power is crucial to their agenda of reforming the system. While some political parties do manage to field honest candidates of modest means, typically, the means of such parties are questionable.

The current model of financing poll campaigns here is at the root of the problem. Individuals, having invested heavily during campaigning, are induced to recover their capital once in power — corruption is the logical outcome.

A large number of countries have electoral finance laws, termed ‘campaign finance law’. Countries allow corporate and personal donations, membership fees, state funding and personal financing. Spen­ding limits are common. State funding often has qualifying conditions, and is linked to the number of votes or seats secured by a political party in the past. Most countries impose limits on the magnitude of block and corporate donations.

While all financing models have their pros and cons, all require high levels of documentation and transparency. With the Panama Papers in the news, and candidates spending many times beyond specified limits on campaigns, documentation and transparency might be too much to expect in Pakistan. However, this should not bar us from debating the issue.

The parliamentary committee currently debating electoral reforms would be the right forum to address the issue of campaign finance. Although political parties are forced, reluctantly, to rope in the rich and electable, finding a better equilibrium over the present situation, though difficult, may not be impossible. A failure to find a suitable replacement for the use of personal funds in election campaigns will continue to make us vulnerable to letting the less than clean into our corridors of power.

The writer heads the School of Public Policy at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics.

idreeskhawaja@pide.org.pk

Twitter: @khawaja_idrees

Published in Dawn, June 5th, 2016

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