The Democracy Trail
The road to true democracy lies through an efficient and honest institution whose job should always be to scrutinize election contestants and ensure transparency.
Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has been under the spotlight since the time the last elections were held. There have been a number of accusations and counter accusations with the opposition parties, especially Tehreek-e-Insaf accusing the ECP for acting as a facilitating body that sees nothing wrong with the elected legislators of the government and pursues all cases pertaining to the opposition with deep interest and visible intent. Given the Panama Papers scandal, politics in Pakistan is in great turmoil and the ECP finds itself in the middle of a political environment that showcases it as a biased institution. With politicians vying for influence, the main question that arises is – what does ECP stand for? Who it stands with is also something that is very much in play. What is certain is that the elections watchdog has not been treating all stakeholders with the same stick, forcing many people to question the very nature of independence, freedom, transparency and unquestionable accountability that the ECP enjoys as one of the most important institutions of the state.
In making the announcement, Modi made good his stated campaign pledge of fighting “black money” the illicit proceeds – often held in cash – of tax evasion, crime and corruption. He has now approved the creation of a department of Political Finance – a new tool to make the legislators accountable. The department will audit the statements of assets and liabilities of the legislators. Armed with the sword of bringing under its ambit lawmakers, it would not be an easy job to perform. Ideally, ECP’s department of political finance would warrant the appointment of the Director, managerial staff and technical assistants. Their selection and appointment should have nothing to do with the interference of politicians. If their purpose is to act as a check on the legislators, then they must not and cannot have any association with a political party and must be non-partisan in all political matters. The creation of the department would obviously require a functional directorate and a huge bureaucratic
apparatus. The number of legislators that presently sit in the national and provincial assemblies are more than 1500. Add to this those who are elected for local bodies. Would the ECP be able to scrutinize in time the assets of thousands of legislators? For that it would have to be not only empowered but properly resourced.
So far what the ECP has done is consistently widen the gap between its capability and credibility. Unless all political parties re-tool and take the directorate of political finance in the ECP seriously and as a centerpiece of creating a necessary check and balance for determining who gets to do politics in Pakistan, the whole exercise may just cave in. The department should be based on a sound and workable methodology that contributes to the ECP working efficiently and not just beating around the theme of ensuring accountability with little or no resources. The public in Pakistan is already amused at the level of tax declarations of the legislators against their accumulated heaps of wealth. The public has the right to know the true financial standing of the people they vote for and ECP is the institution that does the job for them. In the apparent change in the nature of democracy that is hard to miss in Pakistan these days, the ECP also holds a great responsibility in demonstrating that it believes more in the values that democracy brings along rather the typical rule of majority (tyranny of the majority). No wonder it would continue to retain the job that is most difficult and emotional to perform – checkmating the lawmakers.
Examining all statements of assets and determining that they don’t include discrepancies or false information would be an uphill task. It would not only be the submitted statements but a comparison would have to be drawn with those submitted earlier to be able to come to a definite and meaningful conclusion. The increase or decrease in value of the income/assets of any legislator would only be possible if such a comparison were made. The other institutions of the state would also have to come forward to assist in determining this value and if the matter needs any investigation, the law enforcement agencies would also be involved. In a sense, the directorate would have to establish a network and work hand in hand with other institutions to manage its job in a given time line – something that we hardly see happening in our country.
To have a rules based society the country needs strong and competent legislators who themselves abide by and respect the law. It is only then that a reformed institution like the ECP can contribute in bringing in change by sending to the parliament only those representatives who don’t flout the rules. No meaningful change will take place if the department of political finance does not enforce its laws. In future, laws will have to be more stringent to combat political blackmailing as well as mounting political pressures. It is for this department to see that the gap between the fortunes of those who contest elections and the rest of the people has been growing for over two generations. As a result, the strong are becoming stronger and the weak weaker. It is not rampant corruption in Pakistani politics but the resilience of the free that continues to expose. This shocks the political elite and brings them out of their complacency. Now they need to acknowledge that it is time to follow the law which cannot continue to deny, fight against or ignore.
Seen in this context, if only the department of political finance does its job – and does it properly, it would definitely help in degenerating the huge inequality that has eaten into society. Only when the “assets concealers” are punished that Pakistan would witness real law makers in the making and those who cheat and tell lies would be barred from doing politics. If nothing else, it would at least the disqualified and dishonest from contesting elections.
There are discrepancies and excesses committed by the legislators because the ECP is not doing its job. If the political finance department of the ECP could establish a network of scrutinizing the declaration of assets with the help of the FBR, revenue departments of the provinces, FIA and other institutions, it would lead to huge reforms in the electoral system. Then legislators would only reach the parliament through a system of filtration.
For the department of political finance to be successful, the ECP would have to retain its independence, autonomy and the ability to function independently. It is only if the department of political finance can combat interference from the government that it may be expected to perform its functions properly and without any let or hindrance. The onus will always be on the ECP.
So far what the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) has done is consistently widen the gap between its capability and credibility.