The federal budget 2023-24 proposed an election grant of Rs48 billion against the demand of Rs69bn by the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for the general elections later this year.

The proposed grant of Rs48bn is more than double ECP’s Rs21bn spend on elections in 2018. And it is over three times the 2013 ECP election budget of Rs4.7bn, which was over double the ECP’s expenditure of Rs1.8bn in 2008.

Initially, the Election Commission (ECP) estimated the cost of 2023 polls was Rs47 billion. It was revised up by Rs15bn early this year.

However, about a month back, there were reports of an additional Rs7bn escalation in the projected cost. It added up to Rs69bn election spend that the ECP requires to hold elections of four provincial assemblies and the national legislative simultaneously.

The ECP spokesperson, Qurat ul Ain Fatima message conveyed the ECP’s contentment with the budgeted funds. It read: “The ECP demanded extra budget when separate elections of the federal and provincial assemblies were on the cards.”

Earlier, the ECP defended the projected cost hike citing inflation and the spending required to fund plans of improvement in the management of the country-wide election exercise of both tiers of the legislative bodies.

Stakeholders weigh in on whether the allocated amount for the Election Commission is sufficient to ensure transparency and credibility

The ECP did not share the break-up of the 2023 planned election budget but insisted that its projections were not whimsical and based on detailed costing exercises involving federal and sub-offices.

Besides election material (ballot papers, ballot boxes, printed voter rolls, stationary, etc.), transport, printing, special election duty allowance for government employees, and payments of temporary support staff, the ECP also bears the burden of security arrangements.

Some sources in the know hinted at a higher projected cost of ensuring security and safety during a vote in a charged political environment two months back.

According to media reports, the ECP has already sprung into action to prepare for the five-yearly massive exercise in about four months. “They have entered yet another busy phase of ECP’s life cycle, chasing targets against set deadlines.

“It involves, besides other routine tasks, coordination between relevant departments and ministries both at federal and provincial levels,” said a retired officer. According to media reports, ECP has already procured coloured paper for ballots from local suppliers.

Finance Minister Ishaq Dar, during his budget speech, mentioned a Rs48bn election grant. He praised the ECP for being accommodative. He noted that ECP demand for the grant was higher, but when briefed on the government’s fiscal difficulties in pre-budget negotiations, they consented to make do with the proposed allocation of Rs48bn.

When approached, a senior officer of the Ministry of Finance was irked and tried to deflect. Responding to a query on the insufficient grant, he said the federal government has walked the talk of timely elections by allocating funds for the purpose.

“The government, by proposing an election grant, has already scored brownie points. The finance minister has put to rest doubts on the intent of the ruling coalition regarding the October 2023 elections,” he said, requesting anonymity. There were rumours of a delay in elections until the ruling parties rebuilt the political capital lost to rival PTI, particularly in Punjab.

On the gap between demand and the proposed supply of funds for polls, officers in the Ministry of Finance expressed ignorance. “There was no gap in demand and allocation of election funds from what I know. Even if we assume there was a gap, Rs48bn was inducted only after the ECP’s nod,” a relevant officer said.

Experts responded negatively on whether the two third of the demanded amount allocated for the upcoming elections could compromise quality. “There is always scope for further improvement to make the election process transparent and credible, but I don’t think fund supply will be an issue. The ECP can manoeuvre the security arrangements cost by directing it to the provinces if need be,” said Rashid Chaudhry of Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen).

Ahmed Bilal Mahboob, founding president of the Pakistan Institute of legislative development and Transparency (Pildat), was not worried either. “There is a window of supplementary grant available to all public institutions. It’s the government’s prerogative to approve a supplementary grant if and when it deems necessary.”

“Doubts are being expressed from certain quarters, but in my opinion, the elections will be held on time in October 2023”, he added.

“I always considered democracy a sham and champions of democracy in Pakistan pseudo-intellectuals, if not complete crooks, under the garb of politicians. The last two decades taught me the value of a system based on an adult franchise.

“However imperfect, a democratic system does offer a trajectory for the future. Today I see no other way out of the current quagmire for Pakistan. My vote now is for democracy,” said a veteran businessman from Punjab who has detested elections for the better part of his life.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, June 26th, 2023

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