ALTHOUGH the Senate election is finally concluded despite all the apprehensions expressed over the past one year regarding a possible postponement on one ground or the other, the allegations about big money being used to lure provincial and national legislators to vote in a certain way continue to reverberate. The media has been awash with stories of ‘horse-trading’ and money changing hands. No evidence is produced in support of such claims but candidates winning without sufficient votes from their respective parties is cited as the major ground for such allegations.
For example, the PPP won at least two additional seats in Sindh, apparently with the support of MQM MPAs. It also managed to win two seats in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa despite its relatively small number of MPAs there. The PTI won a seat in Punjab which could only be possible with the votes from the MPAs of other parties adding to PTI votes
It is, however, important to point out that although most of the legislators vote in the Senate elections along party lines, the law does not bind them to do so. The law requires MNAs and MPAs to vote in the Senate election through secret ballot and that is why voting against party direction in these elections is not considered defection and hence not grounds for disqualification. Even in India, where the Rajya Sabha election is conducted through an open ballot and state legislators are allowed to show their ballot to their authorised party representatives before casting it, voting against party direction is not considered defection.
The framers of the election laws, therefore, did not envisage a vote strictly along party lines and an allowance seems to have been made for conscience voting. It is, therefore, not correct to assume that voting against party lines was automatically motivated by personal gains. The allegations of money-for-votes, however, seem more plausible in some cases, especially where party discipline has weakened as in the case of the MQM or where voters are independent such as in Fata. The allegations of ‘horse-trading’ are considered serious enough that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and PTI chairman Imran Khan have openly and forcefully called for a change in the system of Senate elections. It is unlikely that such a change will be possible in the short run but the question of placing adequate checks and controls on the role of money in politics has very much taken centre stage and will need to be addressed.
A major question left unaddressed in the Elections Act pertains to the limit on poll spending.
The question of money in politics in general and of political finance in particular will assume much greater importance as we enter the active campaign period for the general elections scheduled no later than August this year. A major question that the Elections Act, 2017, has left unaddressed is the limit on election spending by political parties.
Although our election laws have traditionally set limits on election spending by individual candidates and these limits have been considerably enhanced in the new law, there has never been a limit placed on election spending by political parties. This probably was not so much of an issue in the past when overall party spending was rather limited and almost all election-related expenses were incurred by the candidates, but over a period of time the dynamics of elections have changed.
Political parties now play a much greater role and exercise a much greater influence on the election. As evidenced by the exit polls and through several other manifestations, the percentage of voters who vote based on party loyalties has steadily increased as politics matures in Pakistan. The expenses incurred by political parties have, therefore, also increased since the last three elections especially 2002 when the electronic media entered the electoral arena as a major player.
Political parties are increasingly using electronic media for their direct and indirect political messaging. These advertisements are not constituency-specific and, therefore, spending on these cannot be technically and legally counted towards the spending for a particular constituency for which there is a limit prescribed by the law. Advertisements in the electronic media are generally a big-ticket item and usually constitute the single largest item in election spending. It is considered so exorbitant that in certain countries like the UK, election advertisements on electronic media are disallowed by the law. In some other countries like India, state television time is provided free of charge to political parties using certain criteria for determining the air time allowed to each party.
It is because of these rather recent developments that an election spending limit on political parties is extremely important. Initial drafts of the Elections Act, 2017 did propose a limit of Rs200 million for each party but the final version omitted this. Giving a free hand to political parties in election spending will promote the influence of big money in politics with all its unhealthy effects.
With no limit on their spending, political parties will be tempted to tap into such sources of funding which may not be legal and/or ethical. At least one major political party in Pakistan has been under investigation and litigation on charges of foreign funding. Uncontrolled spending will generate extra pressure on parties to look for financiers who may have their own interests to serve through the cultivation of political parties. The election spending limit is, therefore, an important reform for consideration by all political parties.
Despite the lapse on political parties’ election spending limit, electoral laws in Pakistan contain reasonable checks and limits on political finance. The lingering problem, however, has always been the lack of adequate capacity and will to enforce such laws by scrutinising such critical documents as the election expense returns, annual accounts submitted by political parties and statements of assets and liabilities submitted by candidates and legislators. It is critical that the Election Commission is supported in installing an effective political finance monitoring and enforcement secretariat adequately staffed by professionals well before the general election.
The writer is the president of Pildat.
Published in Dawn, March 6th, 2018