A ‘democracy’ of the rich and powerful
Since the Supreme Court (SC) ordered aspiring candidates in the elections to attach an affidavit to their nomination papers showing details of their assets and wealth to overcome the deletion of these details by the Elections Act 2017, a treasure trove of information has come tumbling out. The common characteristic of the wealth details of the leading lights of the political parties reflects the power structure of our system. None of the leaders and prominent candidates of any of the parties has wealth below the millions, some in the billions. The reluctance of the political class therefore in seeking to camouflage or rather withhold this information in their nomination papers through the Elections Act 2017 now makes sense. An astounding series of revelations in the media about the net worth of our political leaders and prominent candidates reads like a Who’s Who of the dominant elite of our society. In days gone by, such wealth was seen (but not revealed) only amongst the feudal landowning elite. Over the years, they have been joined by the capitalist politicos, some having bridged the divide between traditional large landholdings and wealth of more recent origins in the modern sectors of the economy domestically and abroad. To take but a few examples to illustrate the phenomenon, Bilawal Bhutto Zardari’s wealth and assets reflect the fact that he was born with a silver spoon in his mouth. He reportedly has more assets in the UAE, where he spent many childhood years when his mother the late Benazir Bhutto was in exile, than in Pakistan. At home he is not only privileged to have inherited property from his mother, but has diversified investments abroad. His father, Asif Ali Zardari, and his aunt, Faryal Talpur too have similar portfolios of wealth and assets. Lest anyone think only the PPP leadership falls in this category, all the leaders of all the political parties do not come out in the assets race as less than millionaires and billionaires.
Imran Khan has been at pains to explain to his disgruntled PTI workers that ‘electables’ are essential if the party is to win in the upcoming polls. These electables are people of enormous material means. It is no surprise therefore that the amount spent by them on their election campaigns beggars the imagination. The sheer weight of this spending leaves rivals of more modest origins at a clear disadvantage. Is it any surprise then that our parliaments are packed with the rich, powerful and influential sections of our society? Where does this leave the ordinary citizen and voter on the touchstone of a genuine democracy? The voter is treated as little better than electoral fodder, to be wooed when polls are imminent and forgotten soon after until the next elections (Jamal Leghari had a taste of voter push back the other day on this very neglect when he visited his constituency). The ordinary citizen cannot even dream of running in elections that require huge sums of money to make a dent. While democracy in our country still carries a legacy of flaws and weaknesses, this wealth ‘gate’ that keeps the citizens and masses deprived of the right of representation from within their ranks describes even the flawed democracy we have and which is still struggling to consolidate itself 70 years after the country gained independence as the forte of the rich and powerful. Of course this political class hopes to recoup some if not all of its spending in winning elections through the perks and privileges (and opportunities) provided by our political system. Corruption and bending the rules to derive undue advantage is inherent in this construct. Until the ordinary citizen and the masses experience a change in this power structure erected in their face and against any opportunities for them to enter the portals of power and voice the aspirations of the people, the hypocrisy of the wealthy promising the moon to the poor but delivering little except the crumbs of patronage for purely electoral considerations again will not change, making it difficult to characterize our hybrid system as democratic.