ON Oct 4, 1988, then acting president Ghulam Ishaq Khan promulgated a little known ordinance to amend the Representation of the People Act of 1976.
In 1976, the ceiling on election-related expenses contained in the act had been set at Rs40,000 for a National Assembly seat, and Rs25,000 for the provincial assembly. Citing the “rising cost of living” Khan’s ordinance of 1988 raised these ceilings to Rs500,000 and Rs300,000 respectively, more than a tenfold increase.
The ordinance was promulgated two days before nine political parties announced an electoral alliance to be called the Islami Jamhoori Ittehad (IJI), which would field candidates against the PPP on almost all seats. It came four days before the notification for the elections, and five days before the nomination of candidates was set to begin.
The cost of doing politics in Pakistan has risen very sharply since the transition to civilian rule in 1988.
The ‘cost of living’ had indeed gone up in the 12 years between 1976 and 1988, but nowhere near the tenfold increase envisioned in the ordinance. Far from reflecting any increases in the ‘cost of living’, Khan’s ordinance of ’88 was in fact the earliest official acknowledgement that the cost of doing politics was about to rise — very steeply.
With 1,167 candidates running for National Assembly seats in 1988, and 3,408 candidates in the contest for provincial seats, the total expenditures to be incurred in campaigning alone would be over Rs1.6 billion, assuming each candidate spent only up to the ceiling allowed by the law. Of course, in reality the amounts spent would have been far in excess. By the standards of that time, this was a considerable sum of money.
Consider this figure, the permissible limit on campaign spending, as a proxy into the rising cost of doing politics in Pakistan. By 2002, the ceilings had risen to Rs1.5 million for a National Assembly seat, and Rs1m for a provincial seat. In the four elections since 1988 for which the figure was hiked up, three of those were elections that saw a new force being ushered into the electoral arena — the IJI in 1988 and 1990, and the PML-Q in 2002.
The ceiling on election expenses is only proxy here. It represents only the entry cost into the game. But it is the best proxy we have to identify the trend: that the cost of doing politics in Pakistan has risen very sharply since the transition to civilian rule in 1988. If the dollar doubled in value versus the rupee in this time, or the price of a litre of petrol increased by a factor of 10, the cost of the entry ticket into politics went up by a factor of 37 in the same period.
To support the growing expenses associated with the game, politicians increasingly turned towards the cultivation of rackets. This is one big difference between the civilian politicians of the 1950s and those that emerged from the long decade of Zia’s rule. The earlier generation had secure sources of income through their land holdings that they used to fund political activity, whereas the new rabble that entered politics in the liberalisation days had to build their own revenue lines.
Nawaz Sharif epitomises the new generation. Many others have remarked on the obvious observation that his family started as humble owners of a small steel mill until they were touched by the general’s hand in the early ’80s. But in noting the rise of Nawaz Sharif, there is another view to also keep in mind.
Consider this. In the 1990 election that brought him to the stage of national politics for the first time, Nawaz Sharif was one of four contenders for the IJI’s candidate for prime minister.
The other three included Ghulam Mustafa Jatoi, who believed that since he was interim prime minister perhaps he could just continue on in the same role for the sake of simplicity. There was Ijaz-ul-Haq, who considered himself the right heir to his father’s legacy, and there was Mohammad Khan Junejo, who believed that the party owed him the slot because it had been unlawfully taken from him in the first place. And hadn’t he decided to withdraw his challenge to Zia’s dismissal of his government in the Supreme Court under the assurance that he would be his party’s prime minister in the next election?
Where are these individuals now? Junejo passed his legacy to Hamid Nasir Chattha, who is little more than someone with whom Nawaz Sharif will negotiate a seat adjustment. Ijaz-ul-Haq is lucky if he gets an invitation to a TV talk show, let alone being in a position to lead a major political party. And Mr Jatoi left this world quietly in 2009, leaving behind little more than a wistful obituary or two.
For a quarter of a century since that election, no challenger has been able to emerge from within the PML to Nawaz Sharif’s authority. And it is my contention that behind that rather spectacular rise to power there is a new ingredient, which was the unique relationship with the country’s ruling business elites that Sharif was able to build that his rivals could not.
And that relationship was not built with smiles and earnest handshakes. And the improbable hold on power that Sharif has demonstrated in the decades when the cost of politics has spiked so massively did not come from his personal charisma. It took money and bargaining over access to the rentier terms that govern who will have a place at the top and who won’t.
Success in that game is what it takes to do politics in this country. Just look at the tussle within the PTI, with one group complaining that the other is using money to acquire influence. This is how the line between rents, profits and corruption has been blurred to such an extent in this country. This is why politics has become mainly a game of money.
The writer is a member of staff.
Published in Dawn, April 14th, 2016