Counting the Cost
On the morning of April 30, at a polling station in Fatima Jinnah Women University, Rawalpindi, when a smiling General Pervez Musharraf was casting a ‘yes’ vote for himself in the referendum, he did not seem to have been unduly bothered by the cost of the exercise.
The 1973 Constitution is not only a statute book but it also provides for the cost-effective way of indirectly electing the president by a total number of 1021 national and provincial parliamentarians serving as an electoral college.
So far the government and election commission have been reluctant to divulge the exact expenditure of the exercise. However, sources maintain that there is not much of a difference between the cost of a general election and that of the referendum.
In the 1997 elections, the total cost was 1054,495,000 rupees (1.054 billion) and the target was 54 million registered voters. The cost in 1993 was 231,725,000 rupees (231 million rupees), enhanced by 83 million rupees. In 1997, the cost per voter was estimated at 20 rupees per voter. Now in 2002, given the high inflation rate, the cost has doubled.
Another reason being cited for the high referendum cost is the government’s decision to lower the eligible voter age from 21 to 18. This has increased the number of eligible voters to 78.3 million. If we multiply this number with 1997′s per voter cost of 20 rupees, the total expense jumps up to around 1.5 billion rupees.
This cost did not sit well with the tax payers. Pakistan has a very low tax base. The number of total tax payers is around 700,000, which is less than 5 per cent of the total 78.3 million eligible voters.
For years, the government has been struggling hard to increase the tax base but such uncalled-for expenses can only hinder the process of people voluntarily entering into the tax net. When they see the taxpayers’ money being put to non-productive use, this fortifies the tendency to resist every government move to increase revenues.
Chief Election Commissioner Justice (Retd) Irshad Hasan Khan claims that the total expenditure incurred on the referendum is only around 500 million rupees. He added that a little over 60 million ballot papers had been printed for 60 million voters. But media reports suggest that the referendum cost could be over 2 billion rupees. This is over and above the cost of electing around 200,000 members of the district government that cost the tax payers around 1.7 billion rupees. If we calculate the cost to be incurred on the upcoming October elections to be around 2 billion, then the total cost of the restoration of democracy is going to be a whopping 5.7 billion rupees.
Addressing the nation on the eve of the referendum, General Musharraf did not the give exact cost but said: “There is lot of talk about the expenses being incurred on the holding of the referendum. Therefore, I thought it fit to touch upon it… The most important issue before the country now is the continuation of reforms, my own role and the establishment of stable democracy… I think, it is very important for me to seek the views of the people about this important issue, which in my view is the most essential part of the democratic process. Therefore, some expenses need to be incurred on holding the referendum.”
He further said that over the last 20 days he had been to 23 places, covering every nook and corner of Pakistan, addressing public rallies and meetings. Media reports suggest that the cost of just the first two meetings was to the tune of 3.5 million rupees.
Similarly, the cost of the General’s image-building has been enormous. The official press information department alone sought an additional 27.1 million rupees for the two-week publicity campaign running up to the referendum. This was spent on placing newspaper ads, and preparing special songs for PTV. Other government and semi-government departments were also asked to run publicity campaigns highlighting achievements during General Musharraf’s tenure.
There was rampant use of radio and TV to project the official line. Although both have become corporations, they are still in government use. For a one hour prime time programme, PTV charges around 1.8 million rupees. However, the Musharraf campaign was run on all three TV channels.
Another indirect cost relates to the hefty fee the government paid to four lawyers to defend the government in the petition against holding the referendum entered in the Supreme Court. According to the head of the government team, Sharifuddin Pirzada, the lawyers were paid 4 million rupees. All of this adds up to a staggering bill for a meaningless exercise.
Related articles from the May 2002 cover story.
The opinions expressed in this article and the views shared by readers in the comment forum below do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance or policies of Newsline.