The area around Bhati Gate was lit up with all kinds of lights on Thursday evening. A sheet of bright neon bulbs decorated a multiple-storey commercial plaza, lying snug between Aslam Makki Travels and Haji Sultan Haleem Walay, opposite the Government Islamia High School.
The front of the plaza was illuminated with floodlights placed at strategic angles for the benefit of dozens of TV cameramen standing on a raised platform on the median strip.
Below a small sign that said “sub-area office Sui Northern Gas Pipeline” hung a large banner announcing “Hamza Shahbaz central election office NA-124, PP-46”.
A projector flashed images of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leaders from previous rallies and a large sound system blared out a party anthem, “Naara Noon League da laya karo ji”, an interesting take on the Bollywood song Kadisaddi gali pul k vi aya karo ji, the sound drowning the groan from two large generators.
The road in front of the plaza was choked with traffic. Amid billowing clouds of dust and fumes, crowds of young people carrying green flags with tigers on them squeezed into the traffic shouting Noon League slogans.
They joined the large gathering of PML-N supporters who sat on chairs around a bulletproof cabin where Hamza was supposed to address the gathering from. The rent of the office alone would be more than Rs50,000, says an official of the Anti-Riot Force on duty at the event, clearly impressed.
Another official interjected, clarifying that the plaza was owned by Bilal Yasin and Hamza Shahbaz.
“That’s why they’ve opened his central office in NA-125 rather than in NA-124, which is where he’s actually contesting.”
He added that the banners hanging in the streets leading to Bhati Gate alone would have cost over a million rupees.
Sitting at a table in the haleem shop next door, UC-22 chairman Chaudhry M. Saeed said while it was true that the event had cost a lot of money, Hamza Shahbaz was bound to follow the code of conduct set by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and would, therefore, spend less than the amounts set under it — Rs4 million for his NA seat campaign and Rs2m for the PP seat he was contesting.
“The rest of the money comes from supporters and PML-N workers… I mean look at this place, it’s decked up like a bride,” Saeed said.
Unlike that of Hamza Shahbaz, the campaigns of most other politicians haven’t kicked off yet, perhaps because they keep getting disqualified.
The parties haven’t announced their final lists yet, so the spending hasn’t really begun. The major costs of running an election campaign include maintaining election offices and daily expenses of running them; printing banners, flexes, posters and pamphlets; renting vehicles for cavalcades; and holding corner meetings, large rallies and gatherings.
On Thursday, several news channels flashed images of the 19 cars, each costing Rs1.8m, that Pakistan Peoples Party candidate Shirjeel Inam Memon has bought for his supporters to drive around in each union council of PS-63, Tharparkar, which is where he is contesting the polls from. A politician running for any seat must have a motorcade, said Ahsan Bhatti, a resident of Chungi Amer Sidhu (NA-133) and a campaign organiser in the 2013 general elections.
But most of the spending occurs on the day of the election. Whether the ECP allows it or not, all political parties send some form of transportation into residential colonies to bring voters to the polling stations on the day of election, said Bhatti.
Similarly, there is the cost of food, beverages and stipend of polling agents. “If a biradari has a lot of votes in the area, various candidates offer them large sums of cash straight up,” he said.
Ammar Rasheed is the Awami Workers Party’s candidate from NA-53, and is up against PTI’s Imran Khan and (if he gets un-disqualified) former prime minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi.
Back in 2012, then AWP president Abid Hassan Manto had requested the apex court to ban all kinds of pre-election activities that would prevent a level playing field for all candidates.
The party had suggested a ban on billboards, streamers and newspaper and TV advertisements in the 60-day election campaign period, besides meetings, processions, car rallies, loudspeakers, banners and camps, as well as private transport and election camps on polling day.
“Traditionally, it’s money that decides an election,” Rasheed said, “But as a left political party, that’s just not the kind of politics we do. Our party began a chanda mohim (fundraiser) and we’re crowdfunding this campaign.” He added that they decided to up their game on social media and reach out to more people that way.
“A deal involving Rs5m for banners, flexes and posters for an entire constituency is completely normal,” said Ejaz Bhatti, a graphics designer at a printing press on Link Road.
Candidates have been visiting the press where he has been working to place orders for hundreds of banners and flexes.
“And there’s no talk of permissible spending limits or anything; that’s just not how this works.”
Political analyst Muhammad Mehdi, however, said the cost varied across constituencies, but what primarily made a politician ‘electable’ was their capacity to spend on their campaign or attract funds to them.
According to people close to Nasiruddin Mehmood, a trade unionist from Karachi who will contest elections from Azizabad, NA-255, the candidate himself doesn’t have a lot of financial reserves, but he was contacted by several businesses offering donations soon after word got out that PML-N had given him a ticket.
“There’s a reason why whatever city Imran Khan or Shahbaz Sharif visits, they make a beeline for the chambers of commerce and address the ‘business community’,” added Mr Mehdi.
Ahsan Bhatti said a lot of the commission received from contractors overseeing development work in his area prior to the elections had gone towards election spending.
Academic Umair Javed, whose PhD thesis looks at the nexus of trade and politics in the marketplace, said candidates usually managed to raise Rs5m to Rs6m and then got as much from large donors.
“As it goes, the candidates who spend the most, have a better chance of winning,” he added.
However, the middle and lower-income classes usually did not have access to networks of social capital and money, he pointed out.
Most political parties in the country were institutionally weak so candidates had to foot the bill for the election themselves, said Javed, adding that parties that were structured properly were able to meet the cost of their candidates’ campaigns.
However, the current system of electoral politics ends up barring every class other than the elite from contesting the polls.
From excessive application fees — Rs20,000 for a provincial seat and Rs40,000 for a national seat — to increased spending limits (Rs2m for provincial seat campaigns and Rs4m for national) the game of electoral politics is primarily for the rich, funded by the rich.
Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2018