ISLAMABAD: As the Election Com­mission of Pakistan (ECP) is failing to digitise and upload the statements of assets and liabilities filed by the legislators, it is restricting transparency and access to knowledge even about the unrealistic wealth statements filed by provincial and federal lawmakers.

The ECP currently only provides the statements filed by the elected representatives of the parliament and the provincial assemblies in a book form on payments, and apart from a few sectors like the NGOs, law firms active in the political arena, etc., only media persons procure these hefty copies. But this process adds to the lack of transparency and access of ordinary citizens to check the conflicting statements if any filed by the public representatives.

Experts believe transparency in presenting their wealth is the only way forward to allow women, members of non-Muslim communities, and even the trans-people to enter the election race as these communities are not as rich as the traditional political families.

Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen) — an independent entity for open parliament, good governance, and fair elections in Pakistan — has uploaded statements of some legislators in a bid to add transparency to the system.

ECP official alleges there is ‘pressure’ that even hard copies should not be shared with the media

Fafen spokesman Rashid Chaudhary said making the statement of assets more accessible to the masses would eventually increase debate and discourse over the subject and this would act as basic scrutiny by the people even if it was not done by the ECP. “In the long run, making the wealth of legislators more transparent will lead to empowerment of the majority of the people of Pakistan who are women, trans-people and people with special needs put together,” Mr Chaudhary said.

Advanced democracies like the developed countries had already come out of ‘elite capture syndrome’ through transparency in the system, he added.

It will eventually compel politicians to be realistic regarding expenses incurred during the election process and this way the politics of money will reduce due to public pressure and allow the new entrants to challenge their spending beyond legal limits. One of the reasons that political parties do not award tickets to women and non-Muslims for general seats is the culture of incurring high costs to win a seat, and the winners usually recover that amount while in the house.

The Fafen spokesperson said it would also be clear with more transparency that one reason for some families to continue to remain in politics was their financial growth from the political system.

As the move to make statement of assets online will bring a higher degree of transparency in the electoral process, it is expected to eventually eradicate the culture of high cost for contesting elections, as more questions will be raised about the declared wealth of elected representatives when a comparison can be made by all those concerned easily after the statement of assets is available online.

A query forwarded to the ECP about why the statement of assets was not uploaded on its website remained unanswered.

Legal hitch

However, an officer on the condition of anonymity said the law did not allow them to disseminate digital copies or upload the statement of assets submitted by the legislators on the ECP website.

The officer claimed they were already under pressure from the legislators who demand that even the hard copies should not be given to media.

Section 138 of Elections Act 2017 calls for ‘Publication of statement of assets and liabilities’, and it also states that anybody can obtain them upon payment of prescribed fee. Currently the fee is Rs10 per page and the complete set of statement filed by all the MPAs of four assemblies, as well as the members of upper and lower house of the parliament can cost up to Rs40,000.

Ex-senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, who resigned from his seat over differences with the PPP leadership, said the ECP was responsible to change the system for good and make it easy and transparent for the ordinary citizens.

“The ECP has powers under the law and such changes should be made to bring more transparency in the democratic process,” Mr Khokhar said, and added that the system was in favour of electables. That was why the political parties try to woo an ‘electable’ over less affluent class, including women, non-Muslim candidates.

The digitisation of the statement of assets will also make it easy to cross-check the financial worth of contestants in their later years in office, against the statements they file after winning. Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency (Pildat) President Ahmed Bilal Mehboob supports the uploading of the statement of assets. According to him, this will bring more transparency to the system and as a result, it will be clearer to everyone that contesting elections is beyond the range of most people’s pockets.

Published in Dawn, December 3rd, 2023

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