THOUGH the new election laws enacted last year increased the campaign spending limit of candidates aspiring for a national and provincial seat, even these increased limits are not enough for aspirants to pay the bills that are an inevitable consequence of running an election campaign.

Money counts in an election even if it does not guarantee victory for the big-spenders at the end of the day.

The cost of an election differs from campaign to campaign and constituency to constituency. It largely depends on the candidate, the size and geography of a given constituency, and how fierce the competition is on a particular seat. The fact remains that even the frugal candidate ends up breaching the legal spending limits.

“In some cases, spending limits are already breached by the time a candidate leaves home to address their first election meeting,” a former Punjab minister told this correspondent on condition of anonymity. “No one is bothered about the spending restrictions. When you are in a competition, you want to win no matter what the cost.”

Pakistan’s election laws assume that candidates will finance their campaigns from their own pockets. In certain cases, particularly in the rural constituencies, this assumption holds.

“We have no favourite. The winner is our favourite. Therefore, we try to make nice with everyone and every party that matters and has a chance of coming into power”

In most instances, however, a big portion of the sum politicians spend on their election is contributed by rich individuals who sometimes are financing the top two horses in the race to ensure that their clout on state functionaries from the area doesn’t diminish.

The corporate sector, powerful business lobbies and individual businesspersons on the other hand have bigger objectives in sight when they fund the campaign of a particular candidate. They normally choose candidates with strong clout in their respective parties and are expected to be part of the next provincial or federal cabinet, and, thus, are in a position to help their financier(s) buy policy influence in the government.

Such political contributions are difficult to trace because of loopholes in campaign finance laws, and weak or lack of enforcement of the existing regulations governing such donations.

“Corporations cannot fund campaigns. Same is the case with our trade association. No company or trade lobby can legally finance politicians or political parties. They wouldn’t, even if it were lawful.

“But if you ask me, if I and my counterparts in trade contribute to election campaigns of individual candidates and political parties, I’d say yes we do. We finance them individually as well as collectively.

“The money comes from our personal accounts and is routed to the beneficiaries through informal channels. You can’t do business in this country if you do not have strong lobby in the (provincial and federal) cabinet to keep the government from making business-unfriendly policies,” argued a senior businessman who is known to have close connections with the top leadership of PML-Nawaz and Pakistan Tehrik-i-Insaf (PTI).

“We have no favourite. The winner is our favourite. Therefore, we try to make nice with everyone and every party that matters, and has a chance of coming into power. But having ‘our people’ sitting on the opposition benches also helps,” he smiled. He conceded that this strategy sometimes his strategy doesn’t pay. In such a scenario, he concluded, “we have to opt for other routes to achieve our objectives”.

A big portion of the sum politicians spend on election is contributed by rich individuals who sometimes are financing the top two horses in the race

Many, like Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, support campaign spending limits and reducing the role of money in elections in order to ensure a level playing field for those without deep pockets or access to unlimited funds.

“We, the Pildat, also wanted the previous government to fix spending limits for political parties based on the number of seats a party is contesting. But our proposal wasn’t accepted.”

Mr Mehboob said corporations and business lobbies normally finance political parties anonymously from off-the-book sources because it was illegal for them to give political donations and could have political repercussions.

A large portion of funding comes from overseas despite a ban on foreign donations. Political parties also do not disclose the source of funding in the accounts submitted to the election authorities every year for the same reasons. “The reality is that such contributions from interest groups do find their way into the accounts of the political parties. (When the elections are over) these interest groups look for payback of their investments.”

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 23rd, 2018



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