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Where does the buck stop?

July 10, 2012

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Laws must make sense because if they don't they are bound to be violated. The violators become criminals out of little or no fault of theirs and the matter becomes a grave social concern. That's exactly what has happened to the election expenses.

The Election Commission has recently set Rs 1.5 million as the election expense limit for the candidates to the National Assembly and Rs 1 million for those contesting for a seat in any of the four provincial assemblies. A national constituency on average has three hundred thousand registered voters. That means a National Assembly candidate is legally allowed to spend Rs 5 to canvas each one of his/her potential voters. Is that already too much?

Not only is the amount inviting scathing criticism, but what it shall buy is also a heated debate. How will the candidates spend their five rupee note? This issue of great national importance is giving sleepless nights to our vigilant custodians of law and suave guardians of morality. Not to mention are the valiant protectors of the two-nation theory, the ideology of Pakistan who, standing on the sidelines, are frowning upon the potential havoc that this meager amount can wreak on our hapless populace.

Candidates are being told through stern orders what size their posters should be, when they can use loudspeakers (no instructions on volume of sound in decibel measures, however), where they can set up a stall, and whether they can ride a car when rallying. Between the lines, they are being told that it is better if they abstain from using all and any of these profligate means of communication. They are instead being advised to focus more on door-to-door campaigns and on in-person meetings with the electors as modest and unpretentious way.

Better said than done. Suppose a candidate spends one minute shaking hands with a potential voter, inquiring about his elders' health and kids' well being (not to mention that of his cow and her two calves) and does that for eight hours a day continuously without wasting even a minute, the candidate needs 624 consecutive days to meet all registered voters. Or looking at it the other way round, the candidate can spend a minute each with just five per cent of his/her potential voters during the usual time of around a month allowed for canvassing even if he manages the supra human act of doing it without a break for eight hours a day.

The ECP itself, however, is trying to evade a door-to-door voter registration exercise to produce an error-free list. More interestingly, the ECP's official report of elections 2002 tells us that it had spent Rs 1.45 billion on administration of elections, this comes out to be Rs 20 per registered vote or Rs 48 per vote cast. The Commission spent this much on the electoral chores despite the fact that the bulk of the work was done by government employees working on nominal per diems. (The ECP has not published a similar report for 2008 elections.)

The Commission is maintaining the election expense limit at the 2002 level, refusing to account in the high inflation that our economy has suffered during the past decade. There are on average eight candidates in a National Assembly constituency that generally has two provincial constituencies within its precincts where another 18 contest elections to provincial assembly. These 26 candidates vying for the three seats (one national, two provincial) of one area and targeting 300,000 voters are being required by the law to collectively spend Rs 100 per registered voter. I find it neither realistic nor practical. The door to corruption opens wide right here and the buck gets rolling.

To add to the absurdity, there is no proof that the more one spends on an election campaign, the greater the chances of victory. Instead, one can very easily find out a story in every area about a candidate who had spent lavishly but lost. In contrast, people with humble backgrounds when backed by well organised political parties have won tough fights and reached elected houses.

Can any amount of rephrasing of the election expense orders, making them look tougher, sound sterner, help them morph into actions? No, it won't. The hullabaloo, however, makes good news. You feel secure standing at the right side of morality. It portrays you as someone who knows his job well and is a doer. Moreover, the episode comes in handy in satisfying our unflinching desire to bash politicians and curse electoral democracy. Does the buck stop here?


The writer works with Punjab Lok Sujag, a research and advocacy group that has a primary interest in understanding governance and democracy.


The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.