A daunting task for the CEC to bring both under control
The Parliament and the provincial assemblies have turned into clubs where only the super rich can enter. Money remains a major consideration when the committees of the mainstream parties decide whether an applicant for the party ticket is electable. With the elections due within the next seven months, the oft repeated question is being asked once again: Will democracy control money or will money control democracy?
The control of money over democracy leads to social complications. Among other things, it encourages corruption among the political class. Those contesting elections consider millions spent on the campaign as investment that must be retrieved along with the profit. Thus public office is misused to regain whatever has been spent and to collect more money through unfair means to win the next elections. This explains the numerous scams involving parliamentarians currently under probe.
The system is detrimental for economy. While most Asian countries introduced far reaching land reforms after getting rid of the colonial yoke, the measure could not be implemented in Pakistan on account of the dominance of the rural elite in the assembles. An unjust system of land ownership was retained in Pakistan where majority of households remain landless. The system is responsible for perpetuating poverty in the country. Ever since the creation of Pakistan the super rich rural elite sitting in the assemblies have fought tooth and nail whatever moves were made to impose the agricultural income tax. This has happened during the tenure of the present government despite the fact that it badly suffers from financial crunch. Thus a major chunk of taxable income has been left out of the tax net.
It suits the rural elite to retain the system for it increases the dependence of the people over the Chaudhrys and waderas. The parliamentarians are least interested in spreading education or developing their areas. If the children of the landless are educated there would be none to render them free service.
Presently, the limit of expenditure for a candidate contesting a national assembly seat is Rs 1.5 million and for one fighting a provincial assembly election Rs 1 million. What happens during the elections is however altogether different. It is estimated that candidates who win a seat in a provincial assembly spend from Rs 10 million to 15 million. Almost double the amount is required to secure a national assembly seat. Thus the educated middle class needed to run a democracy cannot enter the assemblies.
A large number of the parliamentarians elected on the basis of money are mainly interested in their privileges and in accumulating wealth through corruption. They are unresponsive to the common man’s concerns. They spend most of their time during the parliamentary sessions in lobbying for their personal causes. Their interest in parliamentary proceedings being minimal, lack of quorum is a common phenomenon that hinders legislation. Their behaviour has taken much of the sheen off the parliament. The low level of voter turnout is indicative of the common man’s diminishing interest in elections.
In short, the failure to bring down and regulate election expenses blocks the promotion of democratic culture which requires equal opportunities to all for contesting the elections.
Early this year, a constitutional petition was filed in the Supreme Court seeking to bring down and regulate electoral expenses. After several sittings, the three-member bench handed over the matter to the Election Commission with a number of directives. These included monitoring the election expenses by receiving from the candidates statements of expenses on weekly basis and carrying out random inspection at different places. The court also directed the EC to increase the number of polling stations and ensure that they are not at a distance of more than two kilometres from the residence of voters. To further reduce the election expenses, the court directed the EC to ban the current practice of candidates providing transport to voters and ensure the provision of official transport instead.
A section of expenses however still remains unregulated. The limit imposed on election expenses presently pertains only to the individual candidates. Huge expenses are however incurred by the major parties to promote their candidates, particularly through the highly expensive electronic media. This puts the independent candidates or those belonging to smaller parties at a disadvantage.
According to a study of Elections 2008, PML-Q arranged 27, PML-N 60, and PPP-P 35 rallies or processions addressed by the central leadership. The MQM arranged 44 telephonic addresses (4 were simultaneous in 40 cities). There were 36,339 paid political broadcasts on 38 channels. Their estimated cost against the announced tariff of the channels was Rs 539.26 million. According to the study, PML-Q spent Rs 175.84 million, PML-N Rs 24.26 million, and PPP Rs 15.89 million. The expenditure was in addition to newspaper advertisements. The amounts do not figure in their Annual Audited Accounts for 2007-2008 submitted to the Election Commission of Pakistan. There is a need to re-determine the limit of the election expenses. The money spent by the parties on the publicity however also needs to be included under the head.
Fakhruddin G Ebrahim has a lot on his plate. He has rightly observed that the people want a change. He has promised that the ECP would do its best so that no objections could be raised over its role during the elections. One of the criteria from which his performance would be judged is how he brings under control the election expenses.
A model code of conduct has to be urgently devised through talks with the political parties. The laws have to be fully explained to the prospective candidates. They are then to be strictly implemented. The new CEC is widely known to be fair and honest. One can also understand that he has the will to implement the laws. What remains to be seen is if he also has the ingenuity and determination of a T N Seshan to bring the election expenses under control.
The writer is a former academic and a political analyst.