The elephant in the room-By Shehryar Khakwani

THE rich represent the rich, the poor represent the poor and labour represents labour. This is true the world over. In our neck of the woods, you must have money in order to be a representative. Even the clergy is represented by well-to-do men of God.

The repeated suspension of democracy in our nation’s relatively short history seems to have made us determined to stay the course this time. We must elect our leaders and never be dictated to. Though this sentiment is inarguably valid, the ballots in every poll feature only candidates with familiar last names. Why? The answer is simple: money.

Democracy may be one of the best things in life but it certainly is not free. Even thriving democracies admit the unmerited role money plays in politics. Successful political campaigns need money, and money in turn buys access to the corridors of power. Our country desperately needs good governance as we wait impatiently for a democratic system to take root. I cannot think of a better time to reform and implement campaign funding laws.

Like an outdated, ignored book our campaign funding laws are covered with a thick layer of dust. The latest on spending caps can be found in the draft of the Election Commission’s 2008 elections rulebook which refers to Section 49 of the Representation of the People Act 1976. The act states: “No contesting candidate or a political party shall cross the limit of election expenses — one and a half million rupees for the National Assembly seat and rupees one million for the provincial assembly seat.”

The language of the rules shows their age: “Provided that where any person incurs any election expenses on behalf of such candidate, whether for stationery, postage, telegrams, advertisement, transport or for any other item whatsoever, such expenses shall be deemed to be the election expenses incurred by the candidate himself.”

I cannot imagine a candidate filing expenses for telegrams and postage in today’s world of instant messaging and emails. The laws are cumbersome for the candidates as well: “A candidate shall, through bills, receipts and other documents, vouch for every payment made in respect of election expenses, except where the amount is less than five hundred rupees.” I wonder what Rs500 bought when the rules were enacted but today it will barely cover the cost of a watermelon.

We need a serious debate about campaign funding laws which should focus on spending limits, allocation of public funds for political campaigns, public disclosure of contributions and placing limits on the contributions a candidate can receive. It is an opportune moment in history for lawmakers to overhaul rules keeping in mind the best interests of the nation. A balanced debate must acknowledge the undeniable truth that our politicians are facing rising costs of electioneering and the laws must result in a transparent system.

Our system needs reform. In order to contest the wealthy spend money, in effect taking ownership of a party. They provide for the political apparatus and thus possess it. Campaign expenditure leads to corruption, as some who seek public office treat it like a return on investment instead of service to the people. Our system leads to general elections filled with rumours and speculation about mysterious sources and foreign hands propping up candidates.

Ultimately, the Election Commission plays the vital role of enforcement of election rules; laws that are not enforced are not worth the paper they are written on. Ensuring that spending is contained within the limits specified will result in levelling the playing field. The discussion will be about ideas and those with talent will move forward. Only then will the forum of politics be open to those who are not wealthy.

In the run-up to the February elections, much was made in the media about the incumbents using government resources for their campaigns. This became a moot point when the incumbents were ousted. But the problem still remains.

Elections are not merely a matter of updating election rolls, examining nomination papers and monitoring polling stations. The most important factor has been largely ignored. The failure to introduce and implement changes in campaign funding laws is the elephant in the room. With each election cycle, the elephant grows bigger. We will not be able to ignore him for long.
Dawn, 25/7/2008

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