“Of all forms of tyranny the least attractive and the most vulgar is the tyranny of mere wealth, the tyranny of plutocracy”

–Theodore Roosevelt.

 

The scrutiny process of the credentials of more than twenty thousand candidates who are desirous of contesting the upcoming general elections is over. We have just seen how dishonest most of these candidates have been while declaring and valuating the worth of their property. The asset details of a large number of these candidates show they simply don’t own any house or even a motor vehicle. But paradoxically, these ‘paupers’ will soon be seen spending money lavishly and extravagantly during their elections campaign in the country. They will be riding their luxurious and expensive SUVs throughout this campaign. Their larger-than-life posters and banners will be displayed in every nook and cranny of their constituencies. They will be generously offering free meals to their potential voters. They will be using huge sums of money to buy votes. And in doing so, they will hardly be bothering about the “sanctity of the vote”.

This unholy nexus between money and politics has now become one of the characteristic features of the political system in Pakistan. The electoral politics are currently just revolving around the money. One can’t even think of contesting elections without having millions of rupees. Therefore, all political parties have readily fielded their electables to take part in the forthcoming electoral battles throughout the country. The primary qualification of these electables is that they are millionaires or billionaires who are capable of spending a lot of money to get elected. Similarly, these electables sometimes also pay hefty amounts to their party leaders in return for party tickets to contest election under the party’s banner. The diehard workers of almost all political parties are protesting against this unfair award of party tickets. Just like the so-called status quo political parties, PTI, a party which is a torchbearer of political change, has also chosen to opt for a quick-fix solution of awarding party tickets to these millionaire electables. Indeed, this party too is no mood of first awarding tickets to its ordinary workers, and subsequently taking pain to raise funds for their elections campaign.

Section 132 of the Elections Act 2017 imposes a statutory restriction on the election expenses incurred by an individual contesting candidate, or any person or political party on behalf of such candidate. It provides that the election expenses of a contesting candidate shall not exceed 4 million rupees for an election to a seat in the National Assembly; and 2 million rupees for an election to a seat in a Provincial Assembly. However, the contesting candidates usually flout these mandatory statutory provisions during their electioneering. It is now a common practice in Pakistan that a contesting candidate for a seat of National Assembly or a Provincial Assembly averagely spends upto 100 million rupees and 50 million rupees respectively during his/her election campaign. This election expenditure is almost 25 times higher than the statutory limit for the same. Regrettably, Election Commission of Pakistan mostly prefers to stay silent over this grave statutory violation rather than proactively taking any action against the violators.

It is really absurd to assume or expect that the candidates, who have spent tens of millions rupees to get elected, will selflessly and honesty serve the masses after coming into power. Naturally, they will try to recover their ‘investments’ along with profit just like any businessman. They will enjoy hefty perks and privileges for being legislators. They will indulge in the political horse-trading. They will secure jumbo loans from the financial institutions, and subsequently manage to get these loans written off. They will misappropriate public funds. They will plunder public resources. In the absence of any efficient audit apparatus and vibrant local government institutions in the country, they will also easily manage to receive kickbacks from various public development projects in their constituencies. These individuals will hardly allow accountability institutions flourish in the country. Therefore, politicos and leaders, who are making tall claims of ending corruption and misappropriation of public funds after coming into power with the support of these millionaire electables, are simply fools or just trying to befool the disillusioned ordinary people.

The contesting candidates are supposed to provide required information relating to their income, assets and liabilities to Election Commission of Pakistan in compliance with Articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution. Besides this, they are also required to furnish information regarding their educational qualification, occupation, criminal record, national tax number, income tax returns, dual nationality (if any), and a declaration pertaining to any default in bank loan or government dues. To me, among this hotchpotch of information, the statement of assets and liabilities is the most relevant and significant piece of information. The ECP should focus on this statement and try to ascertain and verify the truthfulness of the details furnish by the aspiring candidates. Moreover, the return of election expenses submitted by the contesting candidates to the Returning Officers under Section 134 of the Elections Act 2017 is another relevant and crucial statutory provision. This statement or return directly affects the credibility and quality of the entire electoral process. Therefore, this statutory provision should always be tried to be enforced in letter and spirit.

Unfortunately, neither the ECP nor the apex court has ever shown any strong will or resolution to make contesting candidates strictly conform to these crucial provisions. Under Section 136(3) of the Elections Act 2017, where after scrutinizing the return of election expenses submitted by a successful candidate, the ECP finds that any candidate has spent money in excess of the statutory limit during the electioneering, it can file a complaint against such candidate for committing the offence of corrupt practices, which may eventually result in his/her disqualification. But the ECP has never taken any action against any extravagant candidate. Therefore, filing a return of election expenses by the candidates has only become an insignificant legal formality. Noticeably, the ECP neither has any will nor the institutional capacity to stop contesting candidates from making a mockery of these statutory provisions by spending a lot of money during electioneering.

Besides the ECP, political parties can also play an important role to break this vicious nexus between politics and money by promoting a healthy political culture in the country. These parties should prefer educated and honest individuals over millionaire electables while awarding party tickets ahead of the polls. They should promote the practice of raising election funds to help their nominees run their elections campaign smoothly. They should also stop their candidates from making wasteful spending during the electioneering. The electors should also be educated to shun and reject those candidates who contest elections by merely relying on their wealth.

Feudalism is gradually disappearing from Pakistan as a result of rapid urbanization and industrialization. However, it is equally worrisome that the so-called electables in the form of urban businessmen, industrialists and millionaires have readily replaced the feudal lords to exploit the masses politically. So, Pakistan is essentially becoming a plutocracy, where only the rich and wealthy are wielding all the political power. In Pakistan, half of the population lives below the poverty line. Therefore, this sort of dispensation of political power just undermines the efficacy and relevance of the so-called representative system in the country. A plutocrat can by no means represent a pauper. Therefore, the vicious money-politics nexus in Pakistan needs to be broken to prevent democracy from transforming into a plutocratic totalitarianism.

 

The writer is a lawyer and columnist based in Lahore.

mohsinraza.malik@ymail.com

@MohsinRazaMalik