Away from the heat of political and legal frictions in Islamabad, aspiring contestants of national and provincial assembly seats in Pakistan must be busy hobbling to mobilise resources deemed necessary to stand a chance in general elections.
In theory, any Pakistani can enter provincial or national assembly on the strength of the public support base in a constituency, expressed through the ballot.
However, even a fleeting look at the finances involved in the process indicates that, in practice, only the rich and those connected with the nexus of the power elite enjoy the opportunity unless some unique circumstances align the stars of a commoner with a resourceful party. At one time, many MNAs and MPAs of MQM and Jamat e Islami, hailing from humble backgrounds, were counted in this category.
“Apart from everything else, electioneering is a costly business, way beyond the means of ordinary folks. How can someone who might find it hard to pay a security deposit to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) at the nomination stage even dream of securing a legislative seat?” a politician from Karachi who aspired to fight and win an election on a general seat back in 2008 told this writer. Later she entered National Assembly on a quota.
Candidates are required to open a bank account to fund electioneering and declare the account number in the nomination paper
Currently, the nomination fee/security deposit is Rs30,000 for the National Assembly and Rs20,000 for the provincial assembly, according to the Election Act 2017. The amount is forfeited in the government’s favour if the candidate’s votes are less than 25 per cent of the total votes polled in the constituency. The last elections saw a sizeable percentage of 6,000 candidates in the run losing their security deposit.
It’s interesting to note that the ‘electioneering period’ for candidates and the Election Commission of Pakistan is different, and therefore, the accounts of candidates liable to scrutiny do not cover the full scale of election spending.
The ECP fiscal rules for a candidate become operational the day one files the nomination papers. “Under the law, a candidate is required to open a dedicated bank account to fund electioneering and declare the account number in the nomination paper,” Qurat ul Ain Fatima, spokesperson ECP, informed over the phone.
She said that the ECP had created a political finance wing in 2022 to improve the financial management of the electoral process. “The law dictates all candidates submit their spending records to the ECP for scrutiny. They are also obligated to route all payments during electioneering through this account.”
The cost matrix of party candidates appears to be different from independents. There might be exceptions, but generally, the cost of running from a popular party platform is higher. Parties often charge dearly for tickets to build up their own finances in the run-up to elections.
Other parties have yet to mobilise, but some sources in Punjab informed confidentially that currently, PTI tickets are on sale and commanding fabulously high prices.
“A friend trying for a PTI ticket told me that more than half of his election budget has been consumed by the party. Of Rs100 million he set aside for elections, he had to pay Rs60m to the party and was anxious if the leftover will suffice for putting up a winning campaign,” a former president of the Federation of Pakistan Chamber of Commerce and Industry said while discussing the subject over phone.
Another business leader who supports candidates of multiple parties laughed off the spending cap. “I think the limit is absurdly low and more of an unnecessary formality. Either ECP should make it realistic and acquire the scrutinising capacity or drop the idea altogether,” he said.
The government claims to be serious about making elections financially transparent, but the efforts have yet to yield results. The history of attempts to enforce discipline in political finance, however, is even older than the first-ever regular general elections in 1971, held fifteen years after the creation of the ECP in March 1956.
The ECP has been reformed and restructured many times since. Even before 1971, whatever experiments Pakistan did in the name of elections, there were rules regulating the financial conduct of the candidates, even if in theory (See table).
The table was shared with the ECP, which did not contest the content but said it needs time to search for the relevant record to confirm its veracity.
Over the past 60 years, for NA spending limit multiplied many times over, but the findings based on interviews and random market surveys carried out by Dawn in 2013 and 2018 indicated that the money actually infused in the process is nowhere near what the ECP projections suggest or is legally permissible.
According to informed estimates, candidates spent almost 10 times the permissible limits in the last three elections since 2008. In the last elections in 2018, against the limit of Rs0.4m, on average aspiring legislators of NA spent Rs40m, and PA bust the cap of Rs0.2m to spend no less than Rs20m.
“Wonder why ECP can’t see what is visible to the blind. Ask anyone in the street, and his projection of spending by a candidate will be closer to the reality than officials whose job is to monitor and regulate election expenditure. This can’t be an innocent omission,” commented a watcher.
Zafarullah Khan, a civil rights activist and former executive director of the Centre for Civic Education Pakistan, who has worked on political finance, endorsed the view that elections in Pakistan are big money spinners.
“In this day and age of competing powerful interests, there is very little scope for a person with empty pockets in electoral politics. If an aspiring candidate is not rich, he needs rich sponsors.”
Many current and past legislators were approached to share how much did they spend, but the response did not go beyond ‘a lot’. None was ready to say exactly how much. Many found floating estimates absurdly conservative. They did concede that over 80pc of the election economy is cash driven.
Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, May 8th, 2023