The debate about our political culture has been enduring. One has tried to map out some of its constants in articles, “Pakistan’s Political Culture — Genesis and Prognosis”, printed on November 5, 2019, and, “From Crisis to Crisis — The State, Power Elite and Citizenry”, printed on December 3, 2019.
To recap, our political culture constitutes the Mughal era “Lagan (rent system)” (involving the landlords, nobles and officials) that gave rise to our ashrafiyya — the elite; manipulation of state by external stakeholders/West through the ashrafiyya; our social polarisation in “biradris”; lack of land reform; political assertion by the religious right and its alliances of convenience; role of bureaucracy — civil and military; military’s relations with other pillars of the state; judicial overreach; and media’s vigilantism and frivolousness.
None of the cited actors — except the military — possess any political ideology or rule-based political organisation. Although entities like the PPP, superficially adhere to socialist notions like “roti, kapra aur makaan (food, clothing and housing…for all)” and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) champions “Fikri Islami Inqilab (Islamic revolution)”. The religious right minus JI, and others hide behind a thinly veiled facade of self/dynastic and/or financial interests. Deep-down, the entire political cadre is riveted to personality cults, disguised as people’s/national interests.
The vampire-like quest for power by the power-elite and the daily spectacles — whether on national media or in the legislature — are continuously embarrassing a nuclear Pakistan and its over 220 million hardworking citizens. The recent saga of Senate elections and the role that money has played in it, proves beyond any doubt that the corrupted power elite has no morals, scruples and principles other than self-enrichment. That they want perpetuation of dynastic privileges; that they have no concerns about the welfare of Pakistan and its people; that their only incentive to an embarrassing existence is to cling to the corridors of power at all costs.
The astronomical sums reportedly offered to the swing legislators are too hard to resist. By a careful estimation, this one-time remuneration for selling one’s vote, equals the entire life saving of any bureaucrat at the senior most levels in the country’s civil and/or military bureaucracy. The role of money in elections… Senate elections in particular, is an open secret.
For running in the general elections, party coffers, personal wealth and support from friends and family plays a vital role, as electioneering is an expensive undertaking. In developed societies like the United States, candidates resort to donations into their election funds to afford the elections. These donations are sought from the general public and wealthy individuals and are considered a norm for needy candidates to pay for elections. Although the expense is audited, there are reported misappropriations here and there. Even in those societies, money from interest-lobbies plays a role. And this has become the greatest criticism of contemporary democracies in prevalent literature.
Candidates take policy positions during electioneering and the potential beneficiaries in business and industry support such candidates. Else business/industry “buys policy positions” during electioneering. However, in the upper-house/Senate elections, due to stringent procedures, large scale horse-trading is not possible.
In the US, even on deeply divisive and politically sensitive issues, legislators take bipartisan positions in national interest. To cite a case in point, as many as six Republican lawmakers broke rank with their party on Trump’s second impeachment recently. On vital issues, legislators normally vote according to their conscience, hence the secret ballot.
There can be many explanations and justifications for the recent saga in the Senate elections for the Islamabad seat. Whether the parliamentarians’ vote against the party candidate was deferring to their conscience or succumbing to the cash infusion or both, is hard to prove. The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) was unable to ensure transparent elections through a yet to be devised mechanism — as accused by the ruling party — according to the Supreme Court injunctions. Likewise, the government’s insistence to issue digitally traceable ballot papers runs against the spirit of secret ballot and is not tenable.
Going beyond the proven and heretofore accepted role of money in politics; the next logical step is to uncover the motives of becoming a legislator especially a senator. MPAs are the Senate’s Electoral College, hence lucrative. Whereas, Senate election bestows benefits like (a) remaining part of a policymaking clique, for as long as six years; (b) ensuring political relevance and political interests; (c) influencing policy formulation to protect own commercial and financial interests; (d) catering to the interests of lobbies at work from behind the scene; and (e) protecting illegally acquired wealth. The possible motives can be any combination of the above. If the cost of becoming a senator runs closer to two-digits in crores, the business/financial windfall at stake might be significant.
In short, the upper house seems to have become one of the most lucrative engine of wealth generation with compatible political clout, official protocol and insulation from prosecution. The boys in the club protect each other’s interests in political wheeling and dealing.
In such an environment, national interest “for unscrupulous elements”, can seldom become personal interest, as perpetuation of self/family clout and rule becomes the sole motive. The electorate is pressured, induced and manipulated through kinship, etc to become expendable commodity used as stepping stones. And the results are then clear… the country drudging along, despite so much potential and brain power; and the future bereft of any hope for the young and the restless.
Today the have-nots stand no chance of contesting, let alone winning an election. In 2013-14, the average value of a legislator’s assets (self-valued) was Rs96.92 million. Among 894 members, only 227 had assets valuing less than Rs10 million, all the rest had more, with 207 possessing assets valued between Rs100-1,000 million. This is a skewed representation in the legislature for the popular majority, which is poor. Election reforms should ensure that low/middle income groups are proportionality represented by binding the political parties to give tickets to less-moneyed candidates.
Similarly, the anomaly left by the Elections Act, 2017, about capping party election expense be addressed, although there are legal limits on individual expense. Uncontrolled spending veers parties towards financiers with vested interests. An effective political finance monitoring and enforcement system also needs to be instituted and horse-trading in Senate elections checked urgently.
Only then can we have a government of the people, by the people, for the people.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 11th, 2021.
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