April issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 9 years ago

Elections in Pakistan are big business — an unregulated commercial enterprise underpinned by financial shenanigans. Black money, which in recent years has more than trebled the white economy, comes into play in a big way during these elections.  And those who buy their way into legislative assemblies then use their position to earn back the investment with a huge margin of profit.

It has always been so. Even the 1965 presidential contest between Field Marshal Ayub Khan and Fatima Jinnah was no exception. Many among the 80,000 basic democrats — the presidential electoral college — who won on Ms Jinnah’s ticket sold their votes to the Field Marshal, some under duress and many for financial favours.

In the 1985 party-less polls held during the martial law regime of the ‘pious’ General Zia-ul-Haq, buying votes was turned into a legitimate business. Money did play a big part in the 1988 elections, still, it could not stop the return of the PPP led by Benazir Bhutto, the daughter of the judicially murdered Prime Minister Z.A. Bhutto, to power.

Perhaps to doubly ensure her defeat in the next general elections held in 1990, the then generals in power distributed as much as Rs 140 million among their favourites to enable them to out-bid the popularity of the PPP. This has become a classic case of generals trying to influence an election not only with the fire-power at their command, but also with corruption-tainted money.

In 1996, Air Marshal Asghar Khan wrote a letter to the then chief justice, Nasim Hasan Shah, against former army chief, General Mirza Aslam Beg, former ISI chief, Lieutenant General Asad Durrani, and Younis Habib of Habib and Mehran Banks, relating to the disbursement of public money and its misuse for political purposes. On the basis of Asghar Khan’s petition, Asad Durrani took the stand in the Supreme Court and provided an affidavit that the army had indeed distributed Rs 140 million to anti-PPP political candidates only a few months before the October 1990 general elections, ostensibly to buy votes.

The apex court headed by Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry issued a landmark verdict on October 19, 2012 ordering legal proceedings against the former head of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), General (retd.) Asad Durrani, and former army chief, General (retd.) Aslam Beg. The verdict declared that both the accused former generals of the armed forces defamed their institution, adding that doling out money to a group of politicians was an individual act rather than of the institution itself. The court directed the Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to conduct a transparent criminal investigation against all the politicians involved and if sufficient evidence was collected, they should be put under trial according to the law. One has not seen any progress in this regard so far.

The most famous episodes of vote-buying was in 18th century England, when three earls spent over ₤ 100,000 each to win a seat in the notorious ‘Spendthrift election’ held in Northamptonshire in 1768.

This form of malpractice is still being witnessed, at least in our FATA region. Here is what has happened in the just concluded Senate elections in FATA:

To elect members of Senate in the semi-autonomous tribal region, only National Assembly members from the area can vote. Since one National Assembly seat from FATA had fallen vacant, there were only 11 voters to elect these four Senators. However, four MNAs boycotted the elections, leaving only seven to elect four Senators. Three of the boycotting MNAs belonged to the PML-N, while one to the PTI.

Aurangzeb Khan and Taj Muhammad Afridi received seven votes each, while Haji Momin Khan Afridi and Sajjad Hussain secured six votes each. Under the voting system adopted in 2002, each MNA from FATA can cast four votes.

Taj Muhammad is the younger brother of business tycoon and Khyber agency MNA Al Haj Shahjee Gul Afridi, who is the executive director of the Al Haj group of industries. Taj himself owns an oil refinery and is a co-partner of FAW group, an automotive-manufacturing company based in China. He was also working as a contractor for supplies to NATO forces in Afghanistan before contesting the elections.

Haji Momin Khan is the brother of MNA Nasir Khan Afridi of Bara Khyber agency, who has vast businesses across the country, including markets, plazas, petrol pumps and property businesses in Peshawar.

Sajid Hussain, who bagged six votes, is the brother of an MNA from Kurram Valley, Sajad Hussain Tori, who also comes from an affluent background.

Aurangzeb Khan is a close associate of MNA GG Jamal of Orakzai. Aurangzeb, who had earlier helped GG Jamal during his election in 2013, has businesses in UAE and Pakistan. Another local journalist claimed that Aurangzeb was elected under a financial agreement with GG Jamal.

Shahabuddin Khan of Bajaur Agency, a PML-N MNA who boycotted the election, told the media that there were question marks on the voting process. “When four out of 11 have not voted, how can seven members elect their own men?” he questioned.


Akhonzada Chitan, another PML-N member, said he had boycotted the Senate elections in protest against the corruption. “Every elected Senator has paid Rs 400 million for their election,” he claimed. “When one pays millions for their election, he will ultimately work for his self-interest and not for the welfare of FATA.”

Drug dealers, real estate tycoons and business magnates are known to have tried to outbid each other to buy enough votes in the various legislatures to secure a seat in the upper house. The secret ballot has prompted some wealthy Pakistanis to essentially try to acquire Senate seats by buying votes in these legislatures.

Political pundits say the reason why a Senate seat is so coveted is because it gives shadowy figures the chance to launder their ill-gotten wealth. In addition, it helps raise their social and political stature and provides unhindered access to top government figures and the corridors of power.

A story in The Express Tribune, published in March illustrates how those elected to the assemblies try to use their positions to further their financial interests:

“Through a review of government documents and background interviews, it has found the scale of the PPP’s attempts to win the affections of voters, and the monumental futility of its efforts. The Rs 125 billion spent by PPP and their coalition partners ostensibly on development projects during their five years in office is nearly four times larger than the Rs 33.8 billion spent by all lawmakers in the preceding 23 years (1985-2008) combined. And yet, six out of the 10 most profligate spenders for the PPP were voted out of office. A look at the record suggests that there was, at best, massive impropriety and negligence in record-keeping with these development funds, if not outright embezzlement.”

The entire electoral history of Pakistan is marred by malpractices, rigging and electoral frauds. Whether conducted by Bonapartist generals or by civilians, all general elections held since 1970 have been tainted, flawed and have been known to be engineered. The 10th one held in May 2013 was no exception.

And this is what the Free and Fair Election Network (FAFEN) had to say about money and elections in Pakistan:

“It has been said that when you don’t control money in politics, money controls politics.

“When money controls democracy, it sets a negative and adverse pattern, which imperceptibly starts to exclude the people without resources. In other words it becomes an exclusive arena for the elite.

“Since 1985 this has been a common refrain in Pakistan that politics, especially contesting elections, has become excessively expensive and a show of wealth, making it almost impossible for the common man and woman to enter this race.

“But on the other hand, it is a reality that political parties need funding before and between the elections. Therefore regulating the funding of political parties and politicians get is a must to maintain their independence while making decisions. This is a task easier said than done.

“The regulation of political finance rests on complete disclosure of assets from time to time, with the public having access to them. It also includes monitoring the sources of funding along with sanctions in case of violations.

“In Pakistan, the legislators disclose their assets to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) every year. However, the constituents are seldom able to examine them.”

Existing practices and processes of electioneering and campaigning deter the ordinary citizens from partaking in the political process on account of massive use of wealth by larger and wealthier political parties, and violate their fundamental rights enshrined in Articles 17 and 25 of the Constitution. The right to form a political party  includes the right to participate in free and fair elections and to form the government if such a party is successful because ‘participation’ in the electioneering process necessarily implies that every person and every group in society can genuinely take part in the process of elections, as voter and candidate, without constraint, coercion or subjugation.

You most certainly need more than the Rs 1.5 million allowed to National Assembly candidates and Rs 1 million to provincial candidates to finance their political rallies and procession; put up banners/posters/billboards/stickers; arrange public address systems and fund loudspeakers, car rallies, pamphlets; set up camps; arrange newspaper, TV or radio advertisements, press coverage and programmes and surveys. These practices create a political arena that is structurally designed to guarantee the success of only the wealthier political parties and rich independents. Also, the permissible ceiling of election expenses itself creates an uneven playing field between moneyed people and persons with scant resources, with the result that the latter are alienated from the political system and deprived of their right to participate in the governance of the country.

This article was originally published in Newsline’s April  2015 issue.