The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) for the first time in the history of Pakistan has decided to scrutinise the assets/liabilities/income/expenditure declarations of lawmakers. The ECP took this decision on November 28, 2016 and decided to reactivate its Political Finance Wing for this purpose.
Many quarters are, however, skeptical as to whether the ECP possesses expertise for this specialised, highly technical task. They also abhor the idea of seeking assistance by the ECP of National Accountability Bureau (NAB), Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) and Federal Board of Revenue (FBR). They say it would be futile as these institutions are either dysfunctional or captive in the hands of the corrupt and mighty. More significantly, they point out, that ECP at present lacks comprehensive legal and procedural framework for accountability of elected representatives.
It is a fact that so far the ECP has not effectively scrutinised the financial affairs of the political parties. It is the most neglected area of accountability in our political milieu. Political parties under Rule 4 of the Political Parties Rules, 2002 are required to submit their annual audited accounts to the Election Commission. These accounts, casually filed, are never minutely examined by the ECP. Political parties are also not filing tax returns even though it is a requirement under section 114 of the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001. Strangely, the FBR is also not enforcing the law that is a sad reflection on our state of governance.
On the one hand, political parties are not complying with tax laws, and on the other the ECP, Parliament and the FBR are totally insensitive to this issue. It is high time that the Standing Committees of Senate and National Assembly on Tax take note of this lapse and call the FBR’s stalwarts for this inaction.
Under the existing laws, elected members of national and provincial assemblies and senators file annual declarations of assets/liabilities with the Election Commission and income tax returns and wealth tax statements with the FBR. The purpose of the year-wise declaration of assets is to keep an eye on the financial matters of lawmakers. For any unusual and/or doubtful accretion in wealth, the Election Commission is not well equipped to conduct a meaningful probe.
It is reported that as per decision of November 28, 2016 by the ECP, the Deputy Director of Political Finance Wing from now on will also monitor the funds spent on election campaigns while the parliamentarians’ current assets would be compared to those which they possessed two years earlier. With limited resources, lack of trained manpower and in the absence of modern technological tools, it will not be possible for the ECP to provide any deterrence for abuse of election laws vis-à-vis financial irregularities.
Section 42A of the Representation of People Act, 1976 and section 25A of the Senate (Election) Act, 1975 make it mandatory for the elected representatives to file in the prescribed manner details of their assets and liabilities on the closing date of each financial year and failure to fulfill this obligation leads to disqualification. Compliance level of our representatives is extremely unsatisfactory as every year declarations by the majority are filed late and in a casual manner.
It is a matter of record that most of the elected members declare meagre incomes which does not justify their standard of living, what to speak of accretion in assets. The best way to scrutinise the veracity of declaration of lawmakers and all persons in the service of Pakistan is through constituting a joint Parliamentary Standing Committee on Asset Disclosures & Investigation. This committee should be empowered by proper legislation to examine the data of the FBR any time it wants. For probing sources of acquisition of assets, the Income Tax Ordinance, 2001, contains detailed provisions. At present, unnecessary confusion has been created in media about laws relating to disclosure of assets by politicians. Nobody is clear about the applicability and interplay of various laws and how to ensure effective accountability.
The ongoing tug of war in courts and Election Commission among political parties on the issue of asset declarations should be resolved in Parliament. First of all, the FBR should be obliged by law to share with the Parliamentary Committee all declarations filed by persons in the service of Pakistan, holding public offices and elected representatives. The committee can compare declarations filed under the Civil Servants Act, 1973, Army Act, 1952 and related rules, Representation of People Act, 1976, the Senate (Election) Act, 1975, Rule 4 of the Political Parties Rules, 2002, with those filed under the Income Tax Law. In case of any discrepancies or complaint of suppression and concealment, the committee can ask the FBR, NAB, FIA, military courts, as the case may be, to take action under the law.
It is high time to make filing of tax returns mandatory for all registered political parties, which should be scrutinised and made public. Donations received by parties should qualify for tax credits. In Pakistan, we have not yet promoted the idea that political parties should be exemplary non-profit organisations fully committed to further the cause of public consciousness and welfare on all matters related to governance. This idea is important from many angles. Once people associate themselves with a particular party having clear objectives and aims, they also extend financial support for their achievement, thus eliminating the influence of undesirable “financiers” — people with money power taking control of parties for personal gains.
Meaningful participation of masses in democracy and electoral process can only be ensured if they have the right to question their leaders about use of their money. This would also make the party a responsible and accountable entity when in power.
Politicians need to act responsibly in all spheres — whether in power or in opposition. Their role is pivotal for effective working of institutions of the state. Being role models, it is imperative for them to show others by their conduct, the supremacy of rule of law. If they indulge in corruption and malpractices, the entire system becomes discredited.
Capturing power is the main goal of every party and there is nothing wrong about it. But once in power, favouring the near and dear ones and/or amassing wealth through abuse of office is what destroys democracy. While in power, they should demonstrate by their actions that they are custodians of public money and are bound to work for public welfare and not personal gains. There prevails nepotism within parties. There is no respect for merit. Presently, almost all political parties are dominated and controlled either by a single person or a handful of individuals with workers showing complete loyalty to their “chief” rather than to the party’s manifesto/programme. Obviously, in return, they expect personal favours from the “chief” when the party attains power.
There is a formidable resistance from all politicians for establishment of an independent accountability authority in Pakistan as they know that such a body would expose their corruption and end their control over the State. The way forward is that political parties should be forced to keep proper accounts, get them audited by reputed firms and file tax returns. Once this is made mandatory under the law, they would have no option but to take into their folds only those people who honestly discharge their tax obligations.
The process of filtration within the parties is a necessary step towards a true democratic culture. The Election Commission should concentrate on this aspect of the matter to fulfill its constitutional liability under Article 218(3) and political parties must ensure in-house accountability and through an independent accountability agency that is under direct control of judiciary and not executive. Its members and chairman should be appointed through public hearing in a joint House Committee for Accountability for which, proper legislations should be initiated without any further loss of time.