The cost of elections

The ECP may have set a bar on expenses incurred on election campaigns, there are signs that candidates are on a spending spree albeit extra cautiously for fear of being caught

The cost of elections

As electioneering is in full swing, candidates are busy holding public rallies and meetings, hosting meals and hi-teas in their constituencies. They are hiring big cars for canvassing, placing huge billboards, banners and opening well-maintained election offices in cities and towns. But, at the same time, they seem cautious about the amount of money they are spending in the process.

The Election Commission of Pakistan bars that the election expenses of a contesting candidate should not exceed Rs1.5 million for election to a seat in the Senate, Rs4 million for election to a National Assembly seat, and Rs2 million for election to a provincial assembly seat.

The ECP can conduct an enquiry to ascertain whether the election expenses, incurred by any person, in addition to the candidate, were incurred with the candidate’s permission. If the expenses are incurred without the candidate’s permission, it would not be considered as election expenses on behalf of the candidate. If the ECP does not assess/scrutinise the expense statement within 90 days of the elections, the statement will be accepted as correct.

"Though the ECP has increased the limit of expenses but, honestly speaking, this limit is quite unrealistic," a candidate from district Kasur tells TNS, asking not to be named.

"A National Assembly constituency is spread over many kilometres and has three to four lacs registered voters. Is it possible to do this exercise in Rs4 million only?" he asks.

He thinks the limit should have been increased to Rs10 million at least. He says many of the expenses are covered by donors, supporters and party funds.

According to the Election Act 2017, section 134, "every candidate shall, within ten days from the poll of an election, submit a return of election expenses" and the ECP shall not notify in the official Gazette the result of a (returned) candidate who fails to submit his return of election expenses.

Section 132 of the Election Act 2017 reads, "The election expenses of a candidate shall include the expenses incurred by any person or a political party on behalf of the candidate or incurred by a political party specifically for the candidate" and "where any person incurs any election expenses on behalf of a candidate, whether for stationery, postage, advertisement, transport or for any other item, such expenses shall be deemed to be the election expenses incurred by the candidate himself."

Kanwar M Dilshad, former secretary of the ECP, says the commission made a lot of effort in the past to tackle overspending by candidates in election. "But it all went in vain," he laments. "The implementation of the law on campaign expenses cannot be implemented in letter and spirit because the ECP, mainly, is dependent on Returning Officer and has no suo-motu powers in this regard. However, the ECP tries to bring it in the ambit of the code of conduct."

Dilshad says, "There is no example where ECP took strong action on this matter. These expenses are always unaccounted for. In developing countries with large constituencies, it is hard to implement such laws and the returns of candidates on expenses are merely an eyewash."

He wrote to the ECP recently, suggesting it to follow the new Canadian law on election expenses, which bars candidates to not spend more than 500 Canadian dollars and give only classified ads in newspapers.

The Supreme Court also directed the ECP last month to strictly monitor election expenses from the day holding of election is notified, and all expenses must be accounted for by candidates immediately after the election is over. The SC gave the judgment while deciding a petition filed by Workers Party Pakistan.

"For the first time we have formed district level monitoring teams to observe the code of conduct and implement election expenses rules," says Altaf Ahmad, spokesperson of the ECP. "Also, this time the increase in election expenses for candidates is made to ensure best practices. It was also a long-held demand of political parties to revise this limit. The ECP would do its best to implement campaign laws in this regard."


Ammar Rashid is the only candidate in Islamabad with a middle class background. He is contesting election from NA-53 on the ticket of Awami Workers’ Party (AWP) -- the only left-oriented party in the country. He has so far spent around two hundred and fifty thousand rupees on his election campaign, "I have spent one hundred thousand on 500 panaflexes, the rest of the money I have spent on pamphlets, rented vehicles, stickers and social media," Rashid tells TNS.

According to his estimates he will have to spend around 1.2 million, "My estimate is that I will be spending around Rs1 to 1.2 million by the end of the campaign," he says.

Rashid doesn’t have the capacity to spend this amount from his own pocket; therefore he is relying on crowd funding to collect the financial resources for his election campaign.

Comparing his expenditure with that of other candidates in Islamabad, he terms the election expenditure of other candidates as "obnoxiously extravagant".

"Compare what I have spent with the election campaign of Jamat-e-Islami candidate, who has installed posters, banners and panaflexes in every corner and every street of Islamabad, he must have spent millions of rupees on this. Besides, they are spending millions on arranging rallies and processions," he says.

A printing press owner in Rawalpindi tells TNS on condition of anonymity that expenditure of five to six million rupees in an urban constituency is normal for one candidate. A central leader of PML-N tells TNS that the lighting system for rallies in the evening costs millions of rupees.

"The limit on expenditure set by the law is not even a fraction of the total money candidates spend on election campaign," says Zaigham Khan, a political analyst.

Spending on an election campaign can vary from constituency to constituency though. In fully urban areas the cost of publicity could be high while in small cities like Jhelum, where baradaris are closely knit, it may cost less and will require personal efforts of the candidate to reach out to his fellow citizens through baraderi structures. "I don’t have to spend much on publicity. I am reaching out to the people on one-on-one basis," says Chaudhry Iqbal Gujjar, a candidate for provincial assembly seat in Jhelum city.

Ahmer Bilal Mehboob, PILDAT President, says the spending limit could be termed as realistic as well as unrealistic at the same time, "If a common man is contesting elections and he is not being supported by a powerful family, a big business house or an industry, then this amount is realistic and the candidate could run a campaign within this limit," he says, "but if the candidate is a rich man then this amount is unrealistic".

Mehboob says the biggest problem with our system is that the way to monitor election spending is not operational in our political system despite the fact that the concerned institutions have the capacity to monitor spending. The ECP, he thinks, "doesn’t have to monitor each and every constituency, they only have to go and monitor those constituencies where candidates are famous for spending extravagantly. And make an example of those who cross the limit. Nobody wants to be disqualified at this point of time so we should make good use of the law."

He says the ECP actually started the campaign to monitor election spending at the time of disqualification of former Prime Minister, Yousaf Raza Gilani, when his son was contesting by-elections from Multan, "I was present in Multan by-election when ECP sent observers to monitor election spending. It is not very difficult to detect violations of spending limits. We can borrow the monitoring model from India."

The increased role of money is no secret. "All three major political parties are telling their ticket holders that if they don’t have enough money to spend on the election campaign, they should get aside," says Zaigham Khan.

Read also: Biryani and banners

He says Germany has solved this problem "by allocating funds to each political party in proportion to the number of votes each secures in the general elections. In this way, the state is responsible for funding political parties and not the candidates."

Even the so-called electables are not exempted from the demand of cash by political parties. According to Khan, the definition of electable traditionally didn’t involve the capacity to spend money on the election campaign. Till 1970s, there were middle class electables, "I define electable as a person who has a certain amount of votes in his pocket before he starts the campaign. But now the political parties are demanding of electables to bring in the money as well."

The cost of elections