OVER the past 70 years, the mode and range of election spending has evolved with the changing political culture, urbanisation, weakening social structures and escalating cost of communication and transport.
Top political leaders now travel by chartered airplanes and helicopters from one city to another to address election meetings. Earlier, cross-country tours were covered in special bogies of trains. Political leaders used to address wayside crowds at railway stops.
It was common for government and opposition leaders to travel by train which was cheaper and considered pretty efficient. Even donkey carts were used for rallies in Karachi for canvassing. Constituencies were small, ethical values were stronger and voters were more receptive to leaders’ narratives.
Gone are the days when ideological bias attracted social and political activists to work on a voluntary basis for a cause. Now election campaigns in urban areas are increasingly being run on modern business lines
Political parties with ideological moorings had their own newspapers which were run mainly on donations. Big money was not needed and some upper-middle class politicians even made it to parliament with only party support and mass appeal. The ‘biradari’, clan and tribal loyalties inflated vote counts.
Gone are the days when ideological bias attracted social and political activists to work on a voluntary basis for a cause. Ideology is now confined to a couple of religious parties which are better organised at the grassroots level with a very limited support base.
Election campaigns in urban areas are increasingly being run on modern business lines. As the cost of doing business is high, so are the election expenses. Only the rich in urban centres and the influential from the landed aristocracy in rural areas can afford to contest elections, having won the title ‘electable’ after winning a few polls.
Many earned this status with the government funds at their disposal for the socio-economic uplift of people in their constituency — a move initiated by Ziaul Haq. Anecdotal evidence suggests that mainstream political parties are finding it more convenient to outsource election campaigns.
Motorcyclists in Malir are offered free petrol on the condition that they fly party flags on their bikes. To do the same in a semi-urban constituency, rickshaw drivers are paid Rs100 per day. Chairmen and vice-chairmen of local bodies are given a lump-sum amount to open offices and hire men to conduct election campaigns.
Some upper-middle-class leaders of political parties are accommodated in the Senate as technocrats. Unlike in the past, political parties do not support middle-class candidates for elections to the national and provincial assemblies though they spend billions on advertising.
Election campaigns in urban areas are increasingly being run on modern business lines. As the cost of doing business is high, so are the election expenses. Only the rich in urban centres and the influential from the landed aristocracy in rural areas can afford to contest elections, having won the title ‘electable’ after winning a few polls
It is a game of big money. The three leading parties contesting the elections— PPP, PML-N and PTI—are led by rich families or supported by the wealthy. An independent political analyst estimates that a candidate would need to spend no less than Rs80 million to win a National Assembly seat, while a candidate for the provincial assembly would require half the amount.
Political parties have vote banks but proportionately dwindling numbers of political workers. They have to fall back on paid workers. Such huge expenses expose the need for these parties to cut costs by building grassroots party organisations.
But the most disturbing aspect is the huge amount of money spent on buying votes; reducing the voter-representative equation to a transactional relationship and giving currency to the charge that ours is a market-cum-dynastic democracy.
The buying of votes first emerged during the 1960s. The elections were held on restricted franchises and an electorate college of 80,000 basic democrats. That provided many rich newcomers the opportunity to buy votes and defeat some respected veteran political leaders.
Perhaps disillusioned by the performance of their representatives, many voters are also reported in several constituencies of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa to have struck deals to sell votes for cash or public goods through their clan and tribal elders. Wealthy candidates are also installing solar panels, fans, water coolers, etc in community centres.
Commenting on the 2008 elections, Nile Green, professor of South Asian History at the University of California, Los Angeles, observed that none of the electoral malpractices were unique to Pakistan but “the combination and scale of their proliferation in Pakistan is exceptional.”
Massive ‘hidden expenses’ are incurred for manipulating election outcomes, much of which may not have been mobilised legally. The rigging widens the gulf between the people and the government and results in eroding social cohesion. This year, once again, two of the three major political parties— the PPP and PML-N— are complaining of a lack of an even playing field.
This means more money will go into the electoral process than the pockets of candidates may allow.
But despite hiccups things are now changing . A semi-industrialised economy and a relatively developed domestic market in urban centres is nurturing pluralism.
It is not administrative measures or judicial activism, but an active citizenry that can bring polluted politics back to its original mission of doing public good. Voters would then judge their representatives on the basis of their performance and the need for money would be minimised.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, July 23rd, 2018