Electoral Reforms For Developing Democracies – OpEd

The biggest fault in democracy, as it is practiced all over the world, is the election campaign funding part, because the individuals and corporations that finance an election campaign always have ulterior motives: that is, they treat political funding as investment from which they intend to make profits by influencing executive policy and legislation.

In Pakistan’s political system, there are three major structural faults. A representative and democratic political system tends to weed out corrupt and inept rulers in the long run. But Pakistan’s democracy has frequently been derailed by decade long martial laws (1958-71, 1977-88 and 1999-2008) and every time we got back to the square one and had to start anew.

Democracy works like the trial-and-error method: the politicians who fail to perform are cast aside and those who deliver are retained through the election process. A martial law, especially if it is decade long, gives a new lease of life to the already tried, tested and failed politicians.

But this imperfection in the democratic system is only Pakistan-specific. When we take a look at the stable democracies, like India for instance, even their politicians are not representative of their masses, because they work in the interest of the elite rather than the underprivileged masses. This fact begs some further analysis of democracy as it is practiced in the developing world.

Politics is the exclusive prerogative of the ultra-rich in the developing world: that is, the feudals, industrialists and the big businesses. The masses and the members of the middle class cannot take part in elections because election campaigns entail huge expenses, and if individual candidates spend money from their own pockets on their election campaigns, or the election campaigns of their respective political parties, then how can we expect from such elected representatives that they will not use political office for personal benefits in order to raise money for their expensive election campaigns in the next elections?

In the developing countries politics works like business: the individual candidates of political parties make an investment on their election campaigns and reap windfalls when they get elected as law-makers in the legislature or as ministers in the government.

In the developed Western countries, individual candidates do not spend money from their own pockets on their election campaigns; political parties raise funds from contributions which are then spent on the election campaign of political parties and their individual candidates.

But this practice is also subject to abuse, because the donors of electoral funds, especially the corporations, when they donate money to a particular political party’s election campaign, in return they demand a say in the policy making of the government of such political parties. Such a government is beholden to its financiers and cannot pursue an independent policy in the interests of the masses.

A much better practice for generating election-related funds has been adopted in some developed countries, where the state allocates funds from its national budget for political parties’ election campaigns if they manage to obtain a certain percentage of popular vote on a national level.

Although this practice may sound onerous for impoverished, developing democracies, but if we take a look at all other governance-related expenses, it would appear feasible. Take the cost of maintaining federal and provincial bureaucracies for instance: paying the salaries of bureaucrats; maintaining the federal and provincial public service commissions and academies etc.

The bureaucracy only constitutes the mid-tier of the governance structure; the top-tier is occupied by the politicians who formulate the state policy. Paying for election-related expenses of political parties is only a one-time cost and its benefits can be enormous, and it also avoids all the pitfalls of taking contributions from shady individual and corporate donors.

Notwithstanding, another major fault in Pakistan’s political system is the refusal of the party chiefs of the two national level political parties: Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), to hold intra-party elections. How can one champion democracy on a national level when one refuses to implement representative democracy in one’s home? Because of this reason, both these political parties have become personality cults and family fiefdoms rather than representative political parties, as such.

The only mainstream political party which has held intra-party elections before the 2013 parliamentary elections is the new entrant in the Pakistani political landscape: that is, Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI). Those elections were far from perfect but it was a step in the right direction. Democracy evolves over time. Instead of losing faith in the political system, we must remain engaged in the repetitive electoral process, which delivers in the long run through the scientifically proven trial-and-error method.

Isn’t it ironic, however, that apart from PTI, the only two political parties in Pakistan that regularly hold intra-party elections and that have created a public fund for the election campaign related expenses are Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) and Jamaat-e-Islami (JI)? No wonder then, the Urdu-speaking Mohajir nationalists and the hardline Islamists vote in droves for these political parties, respectively, because they represent the middle class of a section of Pakistani society.

Had it not been for the racism and militancy of MQM and the hardline Islamist ideology of JI, both these parties would have easily swept the election the way PTI won an overwhelming mandate in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KP) in the general elections of 2013.

Notwithstanding, in the developed Western societies a distinction is generally drawn between power and money. If we take a cursory look at some of the well-known Western politicians; excluding a few billionaires like Trump, others like Barack Obama, Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Francois Hollande, all of them were successful lawyers from the middle class backgrounds before they were elected as executives of their respective countries.

The Republican, Democratic, Conservative and Labour parties, all of them accept political contributions which are then spent on the election campaigns of their nominees, which generally are the members of the middle class. Nowhere in the developed and politically mature West is it allowed for individual candidates to spend money from their own pockets on their election campaigns, because instead of a political contest, it would then become a contest between the bank accounts of respective candidates.

Although money does influence politics even in the Western countries, but only through indirect means like the election campaign financing of political parties, congressional lobbying and advocacy groups etc. In the developing, Third World democracies, like India and Pakistan for instance, only the feudals, industrialists and billionaire businessmen can aspire for public offices due to election campaign related expenses, as I have mentioned before, and the middle class and the masses are completely excluded from the whole electoral exercise.

This makes a sheer mockery of democratic process because how can we expect from the ultra-rich elite to protect the interests of the middle and lower classes? They would obviously enact laws and formulate public policy which would favor their respective financial interests without any regard for the larger public interest.

In Pakistan, politics has become the exclusive monopoly of the feudal Bhutto fiefdom and the industrialist Sharif dynasty; while in India, the elitist Nehru dynasty has practically been kicked out of politics due to its neoliberal policies and hereditary leadership.


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Nauman Sadiq

Nauman Sadiq

Nauman Sadiq is an Islamabad-based attorney, columnist and geopolitical analyst focused on the politics of Af-Pak and MENA regions, neocolonialism and Petroimperialism.

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