The (literal) cost of democracy

Just how financially burdensome are elections for Pakistan? What do the numbers say?

As the country moves to the upcoming 2024 General Elections, an apparent discontent reverberates through the nation. The alarm of unfairness has already been sounded, challenging the very legitimacy of the electoral process. 

Even though similar concerns have been levelled against the process almost every time in the past, the government’s financial conditions have never been as bad as they are this time around. This has led to a strange debate.  Essentially a cost-benefit analysis of the general elections has been carried out in the past one year. It was said that the elections are a tedious and expensive process. The argument was even used by the PDM-led government last year to delay provincial elections, sidestepping the Elections Act and even the apex court’s ruling.

Are the elections expensive? And how expensive do they need to be for them to become a bad choice?

Election expenditures

To look at what the elections truly cost, it is important to know the major expenditures involved in conducting the elections, from the government’s side. As per the Election Commission of Pakistan, these expenditures are categorised under various heads for a smooth budgetary process. These heads include constituencies, revision of electoral rolls, training, payment to polling agents, election material, printing of ballots, voter education and (civil) security etc.

The approved budget by the parliament for the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) under all these heads for the polls on national and provincial assembly seats in 2024 is Rs, 42.5 billion. On top of this, the Election Commission pays for external help and consultations such as additional security personnel from the military. After factoring that cost in, an estimate of Rs 47 billion was given to the National Assembly, in January last year. However, the figure is expected to touch Rs 49 billion according to latest media reports. This increase in cost comes due to high inflation and additional security requirements for the general elections.

There are a number of ways to put this number into perspective. On one hand the electoral budget is only three times the size of Pakistan’s “Recreation, Culture and Religious” expenses for the financial year, while on the other hand Pakistan’s defence budget is 37 times larger than what it takes to hold these elections.

While the cost of ballot papers at Rs 24 crores (243 million) is revealed through the publishing process, the election commission does not provide a detailed breakdown of its remaining expenditures. Any requests for such details made by your correspondent, were hence denied by the ECP before the filing of this report.

Breakdown and comparison

Comparing the current cost to the previous general elections in 2018, the expected expenditure marks a 133% nominal increase. 

Dividing this expenditure by constituency, a single national assembly constituency of a total of 272, sets the national exchequer back by Rs 180 million on average to hold polls. The same number for the 2018 election stood at Rs 77 million.

However, there are various factors to take into account when measuring an increase in the cost of elections. For starters, every year, Pakistan’s population grows, adding more people to the registered voters list. Not to mention the effects of inflation and rising prices on the cost of holding elections.

So perhaps a way to look at this expenditure is by categorising this expense over voters. What does it cost an average Pakistani to vote? The total number of registered voters in Pakistan are 128,585,760 as per the latest Election Commission of Pakistan data. This means that on average, cost per registered voter is Rs 381. 

However, since the number of people that vote is almost always significantly lesser than the people who are registered to vote. Another way to determine the cost is the average cost per vote cast. In the past the voter turnout in Pakistan has remained abysmal, with the national assembly voter turnout at 51.5% across constituencies in 2018, characterised as one of the best voter turnouts in history.

The average cost per vote cast for the 2018 elections at an election budget of 21 billion stands at Rs 386 per vote cast. Taking the average of the last 5 general elections gives us an average turnout of 45.45%. If we take that as our expected turnout, the cost per vote cast comes out at Rs 838 for the upcoming elections. This marks a 117% increase in the cost of average vote cast.

Is the 2024 poll expensive?

It seems that the 2024 elections are more expensive than the elections held before this, however, that is also one side of the picture. 

Over the last 6 years, inflation has majorly changed the landscape of expenditures. The inflation adjusted value of Rs 21 billion in 2018, at the end of 2023 stands at Rs 44.5 billion, a value less than the approved budget for the 2024 elections.

Now let us come back to whether the cost of holding polls is ever too much. When asked to hold provincial polls as per the Supreme Court under the Elections Act in May 2023, the federal government cited unavailability of funds as one of its main concerns. The prevalent argument was that since the government has to conduct elections for general assembly seats within the year anyway, it would be less expensive to hold the provincial elections then.

Is this accurate? We have to take into account the principles of economies of scale. Aside from some distinctive expenses, such as ballot papers, the costs incurred during provincial and national assembly elections within a constituency are nearly identical. This encompasses expenses related to polling stations, transportation, and staff, among others. This means that holding separate polls for provincial and national assemblies at different points in time would most definitely be costlier.

Even if we hypothetically assume that conducting a provincial election in Punjab would mirror the proportional budgetary allocation based on Punjab’s NA seat proportion, which is 51.4%, the overall expenditure would amount to Rs 25.1 billion. 

It’s crucial to note, however, that the expense of organising elections in Punjab is comparatively lower due to the predominant costs being accrued in say Balochistan, where the regions are more remote. But the question is, is Rs 25.1billion a lot of money? It sure sounds like it. For example, the election commission asked for Rs 14 billion in 2023, through written correspondence to the finance division for the very purpose, on top of the budgeted Rs 47 billion.

Logic dictates that this economies of scale do save Pakistan some money but here is where the true cost of democracy comes. 

The financial investment in elections, though seemingly burdensome, pays dividends in terms of political stability, social cohesion, and the safeguarding of human rights make democracy an invaluable asset. One might be able to calculate the cost saved on delaying elections but the delays in policy caused by operating with interim governments give rise to opportunity costs that cannot be comprehended by accounting practices.

A mere 25 billion could give legitimacy to a long term government that is representative of the people’s wishes. Such a government can set the base for projects of public welfare, the benefits of which could exceed trillions. 

Over the last two years, one of the biggest economic costs that Pakistan paid was political uncertainty, with downgraded credit ratings and no sight of an elected government coming to power, the problem got much worse than it should have been.

Elections may be expensive, but the alternative is an erosion of democratic principles and loss of individual liberties. Thus, the cost of democracy is not merely a fiscal concern but an investment in a society where the collective voice of the people guides the course of governance.

Shahnawaz Ali
Shahnawaz Ali
The author is a Business and Finance journalist at Profit and can be reached via email at [email protected] and via twitter @shahnawaz_ali1

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hello, Shahnawaz!

    Thank you for writing this. While I agree with most of your points, I find it challenging to believe that democracy has yielded its due dividends in Pakistan. I believe that Pakistan requires a new process for selecting leaders, one that is tailored to our country’s unique characteristics.

    A conservative estimate would place this expenditure at approximately 1 billion rupees per party. The unfortunate aspect is that all of this money could have remained within the system, potentially alleviating the burden on the salaried class, also known as taxpayers (irony intended).

    I hope that we can overcome these primitive problems before this land of people turns into a plot of hopelessness.

  2. Why couldn’t they do this electronically? Would have saved a lot of cost and substantially reduced the meddling allegations. Food for thought!

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