The by-election in NA-122 and PP-147 went smoothly by Pakistani standards; a few minor scuffles, and some complaints over names missing from registry notwithstanding. Compared to the hysterical buildup towards the election, especially in NA-122, the election day was low-key. For the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) – which has been under intense scrutiny and criticism – election day showing will restore some confidence in its much maligned abilities. Of course, this does not mean that this exercise in democracy was flawless; the ECP may have managed to impose order and parity on election day, but the campaigning for it made a mockery of the ECP Code of Conduct. That in itself is no surprise, given the nature of the bout, but it is the ECP’s inability to enforce its rules that is disturbing.

As per ECP rules candidates of the National Assembly cannot spend more than Rs1.5 million on their election campaign and Provincial Assembly candidates cannot exceed Rs1 million. A quick stroll through NA-122 would make it obvious that limit has been grossly and universally exceeded. The banners supporting different candidates – which papered whole streets for kilometers - would themselves exceed this limit several times over. Add to this the paid advertisements, the rallies, and the party mobilization and the excessive amount of cash poured into this election becomes evident. In answer to the feeble ECP ‘inquiry’ the tried and tested reply is rolled out: “the extra money was spent by loyal supporters out of their own pocket”.

Excessive election spending is endemic, and has become part and parcel of Pakistani democracy, but here the ECP had the chance to reassert their authority and reverse the trend – not just in election spending, but the general culture of disregarding ECP rules. A strong precedent was needed. The struggling body cannot be expected to enforce spending limits during general elections, but this election was a single constituency where it could have focused its energies. The political hype surrounding the election and the non-stop media coverage would have given ECP the kind of leverage and publicity it could have never generated on its own. Unfortunately, this opportunity was missed, the rules were openly flouted, a half-hearted ECP inquiry was initiated, and that would be the end of the matter.

The weakening of the ECP – and the attendant problems it creates – are the obvious losses. But the importance of spending limits go beyond that; they were put in place to ensure that elections are fought on an equal footing, and won by popularity, not by the cash each candidate posses. Unless the ECP reverses the trend of unchecked spending, contesting elections will only be the domain of the rich and the powerful.