A man looks at a chart comprising symbols of political parties and independent candidates displayed at the election office in Rawalpindi on January 15, 2024 ahead of Pakistan’s upcoming general election.  — AFP

Ensuring democratic continuity becomes costlier every time

Low voter turnout can lead to even higher cost per voter, which has seen steady rise over the years. ECP’s current election expenditure is projected to be Rs48bn.
Published January 31, 2024

• Low voter turnout can lead to even higher cost per voter, which has seen steady rise over the years
• ECP’s current election expenditure projected to be Rs48bn
• Candidates legally allowed to spend around Rs130bn, or roughly Rs1,000 per voter

THE success of general elections on Feb 8 hinges significantly on voter turnout, imp­acting both the democratic process and the public cost incurred. A robust participation rate, besides strengthening democracy, will validate the allocation of valuable reso­urces, both human and material, invested in this extensive nationwide endeavour.

 Table by Irfan Khan
Table by Irfan Khan

A low voter turnout could escalate the cost per voter — a figure that has already more than doubled since 2018. In what stands as historically the most expensive elections, the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) is spending more than double the budget of the previous elections and over 26 times more than the 2008 polls.

The lack of specialised expertise to conduct a comprehensive study on election spending data and the absence of analysis, dissection of public funds or systematic tracking and tracing of expenses on general elections in Pakistan by any independent civic entity make it challenging to comment on the outlay of the government’s election budget.

However, through interviews with relevant officials and experts, Dawn has attempted to break down the per-voter cost of past and upcoming elections.

The ECP’s current election expenditure is projected to be around Rs48 billion. This is the amount approved by the government in the last federal budget, citing a resource crunch, with the assurance of a supplementary grant if deemed necessary.

This is a massive increase compared to the Rs1.8bn allocated in 2008, excluding additional expenditure incurred by provinces in support of the electoral process.

The per-voter cost for the past three electoral exercises is detailed in the given table. The cost per voter was derived through the straightforward division of the total sum of election costs by the number of registered voters in that year. It should be noted, however, that the voter participation rate over the past two decades has consistently remained below 45 per cent.

Election budget

Background research reveals that during the initial stages, when the ECP commenced preparations for the elections, originally scheduled for late 2023, it projected a cost of Rs47bn.

However, as subsequent assessments factored in the escalating cost of security and surging inflation, the projections were revised upwards multiple times. The final demand conveyed by the ECP to the finance division before the budget announcement amounted to Rs69bn.

Imdad Ullah Bosal, the federal finance secretary, confirmed to Dawn that the ECP, following discussions in a meeting of the federal cabinet’s Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) ahead of the last budget, agreed to the government’s proposed allocation of Rs48bn for the upcoming polls.

Queries about the financial outlay of the ongoing electoral process were directed to the ECP hierarchy, whose federal secretary, Dr Syed Asif Hussain, contested the above-mentioned figure of Rs48bn.

He clarified that for the current financial year, the actual allocation was Rs42bn. Of this, Rs27bn has already been released, while the remaining Rs15bn will be disbursed after the transferred funds are exhausted and the ECP makes additional demands.

 Official expenses are just one piece of the puzzle; NA candidates can legally spend up to Rs10 million each. With 6,449 hopefuls whose nomination papers were accepted, spending for NA polls could potentially inject Rs64.5bn into the kitty.—AFP/file
Official expenses are just one piece of the puzzle; NA candidates can legally spend up to Rs10 million each. With 6,449 hopefuls whose nomination papers were accepted, spending for NA polls could potentially inject Rs64.5bn into the kitty.—AFP/file

Sources privy to developments in Islamabad clarified that while estimates can be projected, the actual scale of spending by the ECP would only become clear months after the elections, hopefully before the start of the next fiscal year in July.

“The final bills for the materials ordered and services commissioned will be settled once the electoral process concludes. The true situation regarding the total cost of election will only emerge at that point,” sources said.

A senior source within the ECP provided insights into the extensive and meticulous exercise conducted by the commission in this regard. This involved the participation of all sub-offices to ensure that the projections were as realistic as possible, supported by scrutinised demands from ECP functionaries across the country.

Expressing frustration at the criticism regarding the increase in funds demanded, the ECP source said, “The final figure of the demand note is not arbitrary or a figment of someone’s imagination. We are trained public servants with budget-making skills, questioning every demand put up by sub-offices.”

Assessing actual spending is difficult

However, government spending is much more intricate than a mere mathematical exercise.

Muddassir Rizvi, CEO of the Free and Fair Election Network (Fafen), explains: “Imagine a deputy commissioner who is also a district returning officer (DRO). If he drives his government-given car, using fuel paid for by the government, to perform an election duty, such as physically verifying all the polling stations in his constituency, who bears the expense related to this?”

It is an election-related expense that may or may not be part of the ECP’s budget, or it may be part of the federal government’s expenses. As per ECP documents, there are 144 DROs appointed for the election, along with several hundred returning officers.

There could be many instances where the government’s kitty bears the cost, but it is hard to attribute to direct election costs. This makes the accurate estimations of the actual spending figure for the government on the elections hard to assess.

However, the cost per voter does not indicate the improvement in the electoral quality or that the voters will be provided with their entitled rights, says Mr Rizvi. For example, introducing electronic voting machines would exponentially increase costs but not materially change the electoral process.

“The best spending by the ECP would be to ensure that every voter is on the list and nobody is disenfranchised. All voters should be allocated polling stations in the vicinity of their homes,” he adds.

Rs130bn in campaign spending

Official expenses are just one piece of the puzzle. Candidates themselves can legally spend up to Rs10 million each. With 6,449 National Assembly candidates whose nomination papers were accepted, legally, campaign spending for the National Assembly could potentially inject Rs64.5bn into the economy.

A provincial assembly candidate can spend Rs4m. The ECP accepted the nomination papers of 16,262 candidates, allowing potential provincial assembly members to spend Rs65bn cumulatively.

This means both national and provincial assembly candidates are legally allowed to spend nearly Rs129.5bn or roughly Rs1,000 per voter.

However, candidates also withdraw and retire or choose to spend less; on the other hand, ECP can request more funds, which the Ministry of Finance is constitutionally mandated to provide. Hence, the number is a rough estimation.

This legal spending spree isn’t the whole story, as political parties and candidates may easily spend more without rigorous checks by a regulatory authority.

The more undocumented and cash-based a country is, the greater the number of assumptions needed to measure the election economy.

Some assumptions are that real estate money funds elections and black money is whitewashed, but there is no hard evidence to substantiate the assumptions, says Mr Rizvi.

“People are connecting with people who have more money rather than those who have a vision,” laments the Fafen director. Using money to sway voters is not an uncommon occurrence.

For example, India, due to hold its Lok Sabha elections a few months down the road, also faces similar problems.

Published in Dawn, January 31st, 2024