Legalising deceit

The Pakistani Constitution allows citizens to concurrently contest elections on multiple seats

Muddassir Rizvi April 14, 2016
The writer works as head of programmes for the Free and Fair Election Network

The Pakistani Constitution allows citizens to concurrently contest elections on multiple seats. On the face of it, the arrangement appears to be well intended but on a closer analysis, the constitutional provision clearly legalises deceit. How? Simple. Contestants promise to citizens in multiple constituencies, that they would represent them if elected. However, once they are elected to more than one seat, they vacate all but one, as the Constitution bars a person from holding dual membership of one or more than one elected houses at the same time. If the citizens knew before an election that the candidates promising to represent their interests in the elected houses would actually leave them high and dry after winning, chances are they would not vote them to victory.

While it is difficult to ascertain the legislative intent of the crafters of this provision, Article 223 of the Constitution says that a person cannot be a member of two elected houses, but does not prevent a person from being a candidate for two or more seats at the same time. “But if he is elected to more than one seat he shall, within a period of thirty days after the declaration of the result for the last such seat, resign all but one of his seats…”, reads the article, which systematically reinforces deceit in the electoral system that should otherwise be honest and just under Article 218(3).

As many as 27 by-elections were necessitated due to this constitutional provision after the general election of 2013, where candidates vacated their seats. Imran Khan, Pervez Khattak, Asad Qaiser, Maulana Fazlur Rehman, Javed Hashmi, Jamshaid Dasti, Nawaz Sharif, Shahbaz Sharif, Mehmood Achakzai and Pir Syed Sadruddin Rashidi vacated 12 National Assembly seats. Amir Haidar Khan, Akram Khan Durrani, Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan, Monas Elahi, Khawaja Muhammad Asif, Hamza Sharif, Mehar Ishtiaq Ahmad, Shahbaz Sharif, Muhammad Moeen Wattoo, Mohammad Siddique Baloch, Sardar Zulfiqar Ali Khan Khosa, Makhdoom Khusro Bakhtiar, Makhdoom Syed Mustafa Mehmood and Jam Kamal Khan vacated 15 seats of various provincial assemblies. Deception is only one aspect of the issue. Equally important is the cost factor. Around Rs5 million are incurred on an election for a National Assembly seat and half as much for a provincial assembly seat. The major cost drivers are allowances to the election staff, ballot paper printing, polling station materials, transportation of election materials to the constituency and to polling stations, etc. The money spent by candidates on campaigning and public time on attending rallies need to be taken into account as well.

The 27 by-elections, post-general elections 2013, therefore, must have cost Rs100 million. The taxpayers had to pay for the political ego of a handful of politicians, for they wanted to either make a point that they were popular enough to win more than one constituency or were not sure whether or not they would win from the constituency where they are registered as a voter. Nevertheless, Article 223 provides a contingency plan for politicians at the cost of public money.

Another extremely important aspect of the issue is the fact that the provision gives the rich a privilege to contest from multiple seats because they have enough money to spend on multiple campaigns at the same time. For instance, a candidate contesting four National Assembly seats is allowed to spend four times the maximum ceiling of election expense allowed for one constituency i.e., four times the amount of Rs1.5 million. The rich and the powerful manage to win at least one of the seats they contest and find a place in an elected house. And if they lose, they are elected to a Senate seat in an indirect election anyway. The finically weaker candidates do not have this luxury.

Keeping in view the breach of trust that is involved in this particular constitutional case and public money spent as a consequence, the Parliamentary Committee on Electoral Reforms may want to restrict the candidature to only one constituency. An amendment needs to be made to the constitution that candidates can only contest the constituency where they are registered as a voter. Such improvements in the electoral system will improve representativeness as well as encourage political leaders to work harder in their home constituencies to be able to get elected.

However, political expediency and lack of confidence of political leaders in their ability to win their home constituency may not allow the committee to recommend such an amendment. Alternatively, the law should bind the contestants of multiple seats to tell voters in advance which seat they would retain after winning. In case they still win on multiple seats, they may just be bound to pay for the by-election in the constituency they vacate. To minimise the undue advantage of rich candidates in spending more money in the guise of contesting elections from multiple constituencies, the election expense limit should be applicable to the candidate and not to a constituency. This will at least ensure some degree of level playing field between the candidates belonging to varying income classes and curtail systemic undue advantage available to financially endowed contestants.

Published in The Express Tribune, April 15th, 2016.

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Lolz | 7 years ago | Reply Well written Muddassir! I think a strong and strengthened election body at the local level would address a lot of shortcomings in the overall election process and would make it a bottom up approach. The election process must actually start at the local level.
salman | 7 years ago | Reply We should get this rule changed, oh wait.... Assembly is full of the same people who benefit from this rule. Good article though....
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