THE Election Commission of Pakistan recently passed an important order in the eight-year-old prohibited funding case instituted against the PTI on the complaint of one of its founder members, who contended that the party was receiving and managing funds in gross violation of the law.
The PTI does not agree with various findings of the ECP and has challenged the order in the superior courts. The ECP is also investigating the PML-N and PPP on similar complaints filed by the PTI.
Irrespective of the final outcome of the legal battle, the experiences which the ECP has gone through and the lessons it might have learnt during the course of the roller-coaster investigation should certainly be a guide as to how the commission deals with the extremely important, but oft-neglected issue of political finance in the country.
The lessons for the ECP and the consequent improvement of its performance are of central importance because it is the statutory institution entrusted with the responsibility of not only regulating the affairs of political parties and their funding, but also collecting, scrutinising and disseminating legislators’ annual assets and liabilities statements submitted under the law.
The ECP is also required to receive, review and disseminate the detailed affidavits submitted by each candidate for the provincial and national legislatures. These affidavits include a wealth of information about each candidate’s sources of income and taxes paid, besides a great deal of non-financial information. The significance of these statements can be ascertained by the fact that any misdeclaration can lead to the disqualification of a legislator.
It is not only the ECP, but also parliament and the political parties which need to understand the critical importance of political finance. All financial details, such as income, expenses, sources, assets and liabilities dealing with politics, are generally known as political finance. Political activities which relate to political finance include elections and parliamentary duties of candidates, political parties and legislators. Any loophole in formulating laws relating to political finance and their faithful implementation can have serious consequences for the country’s sovereignty and security.
The ECP needs to amend the rules to seek specific information from the political parties.
Funding by foreign individuals or corporations is generally considered objectionable and therefore prohibited by a majority of countries. Foreign funding for political parties is prohibited in 123 of 180 countries, while 103 countries allow neither their political parties nor individual candidates to receive foreign funding. These figures underline the importance of not only placing restrictions on political finance, but ensuring their strict compliance with the rules as well.
As an early step, the ECP needs to undertake a comprehensive review of all its systems, procedures and manpower which deal with any aspect of political finance.
Read: Test case of political finance
Integrity and fairness of election is no longer dependent on polling and counting of votes only; money plays the most important role in modern election campaigns. Unless the ECP ensures that funding to candidates and political parties fully conforms to the law and spending follows prescribed restrictions, elections can never be called fair.
Similarly, transparency of the electoral process can never be complete unless the details of political finance are made public in time. This is the principle that should form the basis of the ECP’s comprehensive review. If the ECP feels the need for amending a law or framing a new law in this context, it should immediately write to the government.
The Elections Act, 2017, includes a significant new provision on campaign finance in Section 211, which requires political parties to furnish to the ECP a list of contributors who donated Rs100,000 or more to the political party for its electoral expenses. The law also requires political parties to furnish to the commission details of election expenses incurred during a general election.
Although, it has been more than four years since the last general election, the details of the campaign finance of political parties to be submitted as per the law have not been made public. It is critical that such information be made public without delay.
The greatest loophole in political finance monitoring is that the ECP generally does not undertake any scrutiny of the statements of accounts submitted by political parties and legislators. It simply publishes the statements as received unless a complaint is received, like it was about PTI accounts in 2014. The ECP should enhance the capacity of its political finance wing both in terms of the numbers and expertise.
The ECP should amend its rules to scrutinise a minimum percentage (at least 10 per cent) of randomly selected legislators’ assets and liabilities statements, and 33pc of the statements of accounts of political parties, including five major political parties, every year. Without the scrutiny of randomly selected statements, the usefulness of the exercise becomes grossly diluted.
The current format of political parties’ statements does not facilitate full disclosure of the sources of funding. Mostly, these statements cite ‘subscription’ or ‘donation’ as sources without indicating specific sources. The ECP needs to amend the rules to seek specific information from political parties.
The current law sets a ceiling on each candidate’s election spending, but there is no such ceiling on political parties. The increasing trend is to spend larger amounts on electronic advertisements through political parties, which makes it critical that political parties’ spending limit also be prescribed.
A loophole was created in Section 132(5) of the Elections Act, 2017, under which a candidate can easily bypass the spending ceiling by declaring that someone has spent for him without his permission. Earlier, any expense incurred by anyone was deemed as included in the candidate’s spending.
The ECP needs to make more elaborate arrangements, such as posting its own election observers to monitor election spending in each constituency, to proactively stop the law’s violation.
These are just some of the possible reforms which the ECP and parliament should institute at the earliest and certainly before the next general election if they don’t want the violations of political finance rules to destroy the level playing field for all contestants.
The writer is president of the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development And Transparency.
Published in Dawn, August 20th, 2022