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A better democracy

December 25, 2012

ONE measure of the maturing of Pakistani politics will be its evolution away from a system in which voters can only choose among a small number of established political parties with money to burn. And yet a couple of the electoral rules being developed by the Election Commission of Pakistan run the risk of preserving the status quo. The limit on election spending is a particularly tricky decision. Set it too high and there’s the risk of legalising an uneven playing field. Set it too low and it will be unrealistic and flouted blatantly. As the ECP proposes a four-fold increase in the limit, to Rs6m for a National Assembly seat and Rs4m for a provincial assembly seat, it needs to publicly share the basis of these numbers — and a plausible plan for how it will enforce them — so that civil society can weigh in on whether they are reasonable. Beyond limits, there is also the question of transparency. Aside from records of how much was spent and on what, it’s important to channel candidates’ personal funds through parties’ accounts, for example, and to document contributions from business interests and other large donors. Campaign finance is not as simple as setting a spending cut-off, and the ECP needs to be more open and consultative about how it plans to enforce transparent political spending.

The other piece of the proposal that needs to be rethought is the requirement that parties demonstrate a specified level of public support or a wide enough national presence to qualify for an election symbol. It’s true that taxpayers’ money should not be spent on supporting non-serious candidates or those simply out to strike deals with bigger parties. But emerging political voices should not be stifled either. One way around this could be a system such as the one in India, where parties are allowed to ‘graduate’ from local to provincial to national polls. The ECP’s efforts at electoral reform, including consulting political parties and civil society, have been a welcome change from prior years. But some of the rules need to be reconsidered to move Pakistan towards a more equitable democracy.