There are ample signs that money in politics, or ‘political finance’, will assume much greater importance in the next general election and even during the run-up to the election. Disclosures concerning the finances of political leaders and their extended families, courtesy of the Panama Papers, are already generating multiple controversies and chances are that these controversies will intensify as we approach the general election in 2018.
The central question revolves around twin themes of the role of politics in generating personal wealth and the use of wealth in politics. The prime minister is being put on the spot for perceived or real errors or omissions in his declarations of assets and liabilities, which are required to be submitted to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) with the nomination papers at the time of election and every year thereafter. The Supreme Court has already accepted a petition seeking the disqualification of the prime minister on account of alleged irregularities in this context.
The ECP is also hearing a petition against PTI for alleged irregularities in raising party funds from outside Pakistan. Both Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif and his arch rival, Imran Khan, also face petitions in the ECP seeking their disqualification for alleged financial irregularities.
A number of national and provincial legislators have been de-seated during the past three years on account of misrepresentations in their statements of assets and liabilities. As recently as last week, a sitting member of Punjab’s provincial assembly was de-seated after the Supreme Court rejected her appeal against the election tribunal’s verdict.
As democracy has flourished, challenges related to political finance have also grown. Although there was some initial scepticism about the utility of such declarations, it is becoming clear that statements of assets and liabilities submitted by each candidate at the time of election are proving increasingly useful in holding elected representatives accountable. Questions surrounding the raising of funds and how these funds are then spent in elections, both by individual candidates and political parties, will therefore be a subject of great public interest and an effective instrument of accountability as we approach the next election.
The subject of political finance covers such wide-ranging subjects as fundraising by election candidates and political parties; the amounts spent on each election; sources of political parties’ funding; taxes, utility bills and other dues paid or not paid by a candidate; declarations of assets and liabilities by each candidate and elected representative; and many other associated aspects of money in politics.
Pakistan is not alone in being concerned about the influence of money in politics. Both fully functioning and developing democracies are facing the challenge of setting the norms of political finance and ensuring compliance.
Many countries are concerned about money becoming a potential tool for some to unjustly influence the political process by buying votes and shaping policies to suit their interests. Criminals — especially drug barons, human traffickers and smugglers — are known to use their ill-gotten wealth to influence major decisions in various parts of the world with disastrous consequences. Big business can also buy influence. With ineffective guiding principles for political finance, foreign interests can also make inroads into the corridors of power and politics and subordinate national interests to their own.
As democracy has flourished and competitive politics have become standard, the need for money to run the political engine has increased. With this, challenges related to political finance have also grown. More specific and effective laws, regulations, greater transparency, competent and well-staffed regulating institutions, and increased civil society and media vigilance have been some of the responses to these challenges around the world.
The need for such responses has also been recognised through the United Nations Convention against Corruption, which states that countries should “consider taking appropriate legislative and administrative measures […] to enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties”.
While Pakistan faces strong challenges in the realm of political finance, the response thus far can hardly match these challenges. The ECP has been charged with the responsibilities of monitoring political finance; receiving reports from politicians and political parties, and making them public; and the added responsibility of adjudication in cases of possible violations.
It has the important task of ensuring that candidates for the membership of various legislatures and local governments spend within the limits prescribed by the law.
Unfortunately, the commission is not well equipped to deal with such onerous responsibilities. Spending limits are often openly flouted, but the ECP has hardly ever taken timely action to prevent such brazen violations of the law. With the advent of private electronic media, political parties have started to spend colossal amount s of money on political messaging through electronic media.
Currently, there is no law that sets spending limits on political parties for this. While even many developed democracies such as the UK discourage or prohibit the use of commercial television for election-related advertisements, Pakistan lacks such a law.
Some three years ago, the ECP established a political finance wing to meet the aforementioned challenges. Sadly, the wing never took off. Its sole staff, a director, also left about six months ago. Although the ECP has recently announced, as reported in this newspaper some days ago, that it is to reactivate the political finance wing, it has simply handed the additional charge to its public relations director. This can hardly be called reactivation.
The ECP had set five objectives under its strategic goals for electoral finance. One of the objectives was supposed to “set up and strengthen an electoral finance unit” at the ECP secretariat by December 2015. This objective remains unrealised.
The federal government, parliament — including, more specifically, the parliamentary committee on electoral reforms — and the ECP need to realise the gravity of the challenges posed by issues of political finance and make the required arrangements before it is too late.
The writer is president of PILDAT, a Pakistani public policy think tank.Ahmed Bilal Mehboob, "Running the political engine," Dawn. 2016-10-10.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political finance , General election , Panama Papers , Election commission , Supreme court , Financial irregularities , Democracy , Human traffickers , National interests , Civil society , Corruption , Electronic media , United Nations , Pakistan