Achilles heel for PTI: The foreign funding case

A watershed moment is approaching for PTI, and for the regulation of political finance as a whole in Pakistan. Funding of political parties may not be dangerous itself, rather the lure to court the highest bidder risks sacrificing the public's interest.

PTI Foreign funding

Seventy is the number of times the Election Commission of Pakistan’s (ECP) scrutiny committee has met, so far, in the PTI-foreign funding case. Make that seventy-one, after last week’s hearing.

In 2018, the ECP formed a scrutiny committee to investigate the ruling party’s accounts; a one-month timeframe was set. More than twenty-four months have now passed, and the audit process has seen little progress––lingering on, and marred, allegedly, by a lack of transparency. Before we head-on, let’s figure out where all this started.

In 2014, Akbar Babar––the ruling party’s currently disgruntled, and former founding member––petitioned the ECP, alleging the illicit funneling of finances from offshore accounts into party funds. For context, contributions to party finances from foreign sources are illegal under election laws.

Soon after filing, the case hit its first major roadblock when the PTI challenged the ECP’s jurisdiction in the Islamabad High Court. Dragging on for two years, proceedings in the ECP were brought to a standstill, until last year. In a recent hearing, the PTI, intriguingly, filed a plea for ‘maintaining secrecy’ in the investigation, which was later dismissed by the ECP.

Going against PTI’s own principles 

For a ruling party whose electoral brand roared with calls for accountability, the PTI certainly has no qualms about its vociferous opposition to the investigation–and has left no stone unturned in the process.

Why is the PTI bent on lingering and urging for secrecy? That––and whatever’s in those accounts–is as good as anyone’s guess. At least until the scrutiny committee completes its investigation–hopefully. So far, we know that the foreign-funding investigation is a case of a first impression for the ECP. The impact will be consequential–for better or worse. But, there are other deep-rooted, broader issues that the proceedings are cutting right into.

 

At their heart, democratic elections are battlegrounds of competing ideologies, narratives, and personalities. To win an election, practically, you need to inform voters in their choice of representative––which costs money.

Read more: PTI leader Jahangir Tareen answers why he flew to London

And spending money requires raising it. Our election laws have reporting requirements for political parties that receive contributions from individuals. Parties are also required to submit annual audited accounts. Moreover, there are spending caps limiting the amount prospective candidates can spend in an election contest.

Transparency in political funding

Despite these requirements, political contenders in Pakistan maintain a lack of financial transparency. The PTI foreign-funding case is just one living example of the ineffective regulation. Consider Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan, which did not provide the ECP with details of its campaign expenditures after the general elections, as the Supreme Court noted in 2018.

These might just be two names in a long list of financial irregularities that infect our democratic framework. Who knows? Fiscal accounts of political parties are rarely, if ever, publicly available for scrutiny.

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At best, then, the regulation of political finance in Pakistan is eyewash–at worst, it doesn’t even exist.

Funding buys influence

Poor transparency and ineffective regulation of political finance have far-reaching impacts.

They delegitimize the democratic process. If parties and prospective candidates are free to raise finances absent regulation, there is a race-to-the-top. Why? More money means a better shot at winning. And while raising exorbitant political finance may improve the prospects of victory, it comes at a broader cost.

Read more: Pakistan’s biggest issue is rule of law not corruption

Raising money through financiers usually opens up the risk of influence-buying. Law-making and policy formulation ends up being captured by the interests of political financiers. Law-makers may end up using their influence on the bureaucracy to sway awards of public procurement, subsidies, tax breaks, and access to public financing. In short–once elected, law-makers are indebted to repay the people who helped put them there.

The purpose of rigorous political-finance-regulation is to militate against this prospect. Effective regulation looks to strike a balance between the indispensability of finance in the workings of modern-day political parties, and ensuring law-makers are not being bribed by the contributions of political investors.

Safeguarding public interest against political funding 

Legislators are repositories of the public’s trust and confidence. The people that elect them have legitimate expectations that their interests will be represented. Influence-buying, however, destroys this notion.

It disengages citizens from the centre of the political process, imposing the interests of political investors––to whom indebted lawmakers become more responsive in the decision-making process.

An absence of transparency not only risks influence-buying, it creates an unequal playing field. Incumbents of political offices will have greater, unhindered, access to election financing compared to the aspiring entrant who seeks office.

Read more: Is PTI conspiring against provincial autonomy?

We already know the importance of money in landing electoral results. Absent restriction, those in power will, under a fractured system, always be able to choke out any competition from new political aspirants––by simply out-financing them

Unregulated, the free flow of money also enables flagrant corrupting of democratic processes.

A watershed moment is approaching for PTI

In Pakistan, parties, and their candidates repeatedly engage in unlawful practices such as vote-buying through cash hand-outs, or distributing essential commodities in low-income, poverty-driven areas–all in attempts to manipulate the electorate. There were several reports of these practices occurring throughout the country in the 2018 elections.

As it stands, data on financial contributions, electioneering expenses, and political spending is scant in Pakistan. But the history of other democracies has already taught us about the wide-ranging impacts of allowing too much money in politics.

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Let loose, money is a means for powerful special interests to exercise undue influence, and capture the policy process.In an effective framework, one ought to know what lies in those accounts.

Why is the PTI refusing a public audit of its financial accounts? We don’t know, yet. What we do know, however, is that Pakistan’s electoral landscape is gradually approaching a watershed moment. What’s left to see is which side of the river the ruling party finds itself on.

The writer, a lawyer, practices in Lahore. He holds a Master of Laws from New York University. He tweets at @RafaeSaigal. The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Global Village Space.

 

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