ISLAMABAD // An annual public declaration of assets by Pakistani legislators has ignited a debate about the legitimacy of wealth accumulated by politicians in a country where most people live below the poverty line.
The ensuing media scrutiny on Monday prompted an admission by election commission officials that, while a false declaration carries the penalty of disqualification and a three-year jail term, there was no legal mechanism of verifying the claims. "We simply collect and publish the information, as the law does not authorise the election commission to examine the data on assets and liabilities provided by the parliamentarians," Ishtiak Ahmed Khan, the secretary of the Election Commission of Pakistan, told the Daily Times, an English-language newspaper.
But not all the declarations, made to the election commission in February by members of the federal parliament and four provincial assemblies, seem to be false, with some confirming that politicians tend to rapidly grow richer while in power. The local media has highlighted declarations by three members of the federal cabinet as cases in point. Aijaz Hussain Jakhrani, the health minister, declared his assets had quadrupled in value to 60 million rupees (Dh2.6 million) within a year. Similarly, Manzoor Wattoo and Syed Khurshid Shah, respectively the ministers for Kashmir affairs and labour, doubled their assets in 2009, a year marked by economic recession caused largely by a Taliban insurgency.
The validity of the declarations made by many politicians has also come under question for making claims widely characterised as "a farce" by the media. Those claims include declarations by many legislators that they do not own personal vehicles, despite holding substantial residential and agricultural properties. The carless category includes opposition legislators who held high office during the administration of Pervez Musharraf, voted out in February 2008 general elections.
Among them are Chaudhry Amir Hussain and Sardar Mohammed Yaqub, the former speaker and deputy speaker of the National Assembly, the directly elected lower chamber of the federal parliament. The former federal ministers, Aftab Ahmed Sherpao, Faisal Saleh Hayat, Ijaz-ul-Haq, Nasir Khan and Wasi Zafar have made similar claims, as have the heads of the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam and Jama'at-i-Islami, the country's two major Islamist parties.
Under the media spotlight, they have since explained that personal vehicles had been registered in the names of dependents. Other politicians have declared ownership of premium vehicles given to them as gifts by undisclosed "friends", with little regard for the ethical questions that might give rise to. They include Mohammed Aslam Raisani, the chief minister of Balochistan province, who owns a Hummer H2 sport utility vehicle he described as a present from a friend in the UAE.
Many legislators have either failed or declined to fully or correctly fill in the declaration forms provided by the election commission. Of the 100 members of the Senate, the indirectly elected upper chamber of parliament, 42 did not declare the cost and present value of immovable properties or furnish details of their liabilities. Humayun Akhtar Khan, a former commerce minister, left the business holdings column blank, although his commercial interests are known to be vast.
The questionable declarations of wealth by legislators, and the absence of a legally prescribed means of verification have attracted scathing criticism from the news media. "Declaring assets and then forgetting them is like playing a big joke with the people," wrote Shaheen Sehbai, the editor-in-chief of The News, an English-language newspaper. "What is the point if no one asks our elected representatives how they got the millions, or how they doubled, tripled or even, in one case, quadrupled them in just 12 months, given all the gloom and doom around our economy and business?"
The controversy has also generated questions about the high costs to the exchequer incurred by ministers and legislators during a time of growing poverty in Pakistan. Farrukh Saleem, an independent analyst, has calculated the average cost of each of the 70 federal and junior ministers at 100,000 rupees per day, describing the amount as "legitimised corruption when three out of four Pakistanis have to live on less 150 rupees".
Politicians have hit back by saying they have been unfairly singled out for criticism because they, unlike their counterparts in the civil service, judiciary, media and military, are required to make public declarations of wealth. Some, including Maulana Fazl-ur-Rehman, a religious party chief and federal coalition member, see the media criticism as "a conspiracy against democratically elected representatives".
However, such responses have only deepened a growing public perception that many politicians have turned the democratic process into a moneymaking exercise. "The politicians only ever come to us when they need our votes. Once they are elected, they ignore us for their tenure in office and spend that time accumulating wealth," said Amir Meer, a doctor in Rawalpindi. "The huge differential between the average wealth of a member of parliament and his or her constituents is that of ruler and ruled, not voter and representative."