A Pakistani voter casts her ballot in a by-election in Lahore. File photo: AFP/Arif Ali

One month from now the poorest of the poor will elect their leaders in general elections and the contenders include politicians who have some of the deepest pockets in Pakistan.

Most of the candidates have declared huge assets at home and abroad, which speaks volumes about the economic disparity between the ordinary people and those in public office.

The Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) uploaded details of assets and liabilities of the candidates o0n its website. The assets declared by the main political leaders reveal that the country’s dynastic political elite has managed to create an enormous fortune over several years, but their tax contribution does not match their luxurious lifestyles.

The worth of the candidates – despite many allegedly concealing the real value of their riches – is far greater than an average Pakistani can dream of.

Cleverly obfuscating their real worth, some politicians allegedly declared the purchase value of their assets noticeably lower than the market price of their expensive real estate assets. It was quite striking to see that a Form B Affidavit mandated by the Supreme Court of Pakistan for the declaration of assets and liabilities included separate columns for the ‘present value’ and ‘purchase price’ of the declared assets.

However, politicians leading the main political parties chose to assess the value of their declared assets on the base of the purchase price. The Supreme Court has made it binding for candidates to submit this affidavit to ECP along with their nomination papers.

“This is an open fraud with the masses and unfortunately the major political parties have tricked the ECP into believing that huge palaces, villas and land are worth peanuts,” Altaf Shakoor, the president of the Karachi-based social-political organization Pasban, told Asia Times. He said his organization would file a writ or petition to the high court questioning the valuations.

“The politicians have made an unholy alliance not to challenge the nomination papers of each other on this count,” he said, adding that Pasban would not allow them to fleece state institutions and would challenge the Returning Officers who failed to properly scrutinize the nomination papers.

However Raza Rumi, a Pakistani columnist, policy analyst and the editor of Daily Times, said the “valuation of assets was made in terms of the revenue tables prescribed by the Deputy Commissioner for the purpose [and] it requires legislation to amend the revenue law and devise a set procedure for the evaluation of landed properties.” He added that challenging the nomination papers at this stage would be difficult.

The information shared by the ECP on the assets of prominent candidates revealed that the value of declared assets was underestimated. For instance, Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Zardari, who declared assets worth Rs.1.5 billion (US$12 million), priced Bilawal House in Karachi at Rs.3 million (US$0.024 million). The market value of this sprawling palatial building situated in the posh Clifton area is more than Rs.2 billion (US$16 million).

Nawaz Sharif (left) and Imran Khan (right) shared a platform in 2007. Photo: AFP/Arif Ali

Bilawal did not mention in the affidavit that his newly-built Bilawal House, Lahore property, spread over over an area of 844,379 square feet, was built for a total cost of Rs.480.5 million (US$3.8 million). The partial payment to the builders, Bahria Town, was made through the Zardari Group (Pvt) Ltd, but ironically an ownership document for this property does not exist. Bilawal and his aunt, Faryal Talpure, are on the board of directors of Zardari Group. The tax details of Bilawal were not available on the ECP website.

The documents show that Bilawal valued his 305 acres of land in Sangjiani, Islamabad, at Rs.0.9 million (US$0.007 million) on the declaration form, while the real market price is millions. He owns as many as 24 properties inside and outside Pakistan and all appeared to be underestimated or worked out on “cost of assets” basis.

Bilawal’s father and PPP co-chairman Asif Ali Zardari declared his assets to be worth Rs.759 million (US$6.1 million). The former president declared an agricultural income of Rs.134 million (US$1.072 million) in 2017 from his 349 acres of agricultural land and 7,399 acres of farmland and paid Rs.2.7 million (US$0.022 million) in taxes.

Zardari inherited five properties from his assassinated wife, Benazir Bhutto, and added an additional 12 properties in Pakistan and Dubai. He owns at least six bulletproof vehicles, including three Toyota Land Cruisers, two BMWs and a Toyota Lexus.

Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaaf (PTI) Chairman Imran Khan declared his total worth to be Rs.38 million (US$0.304 million). His income mostly comes from agriculture, a salary and bank profits. Last year he earned Rs.4.777 million (US$0.038 million) and paid Rs.0.304 million (US$0.003 million) in taxes.

The PTI chairman inherited and added 14 properties across Pakistan. He owns a spacious residential villa in Bani Gala, Islamabad, which he valued at Rs11.471 million (US$0.092 million) on ‘cost of assets’ basis. The commercial value of the property is more than Rs.1 billion (US$8 million) though. He has agricultural land in Bhakkar, Punjab and in the village Mohra Noor in Bani Gala, Islamabad. All of these properties are valued at the purchase price on his affidavit.

The affidavit filed by Nawaz Sharif’s daughter and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) leader Maryam Nawaz puts her total worth at Rs846 million (US$6.8 million). She is a shareholder in five industrial units in Punjab and owns a substantial amount of irrigation land.

Maryam, who will make her political debut on the PML-N platform in the upcoming elections, claimed on a TV show that she did not own any property in or outside Pakistan.

Former Punjab chief minister and Nawaz’s brother Shahbaz Sharif has assets worth Rs.159 million (US$1.3 million). Besides land holdings, he also has a bank balance of more than Rs11.4 million (US$0.091 million). He is also a shareholder in five manufacturing units. His son Hamza Shahbaz declared net assets worth more than Rs411 million (US$3.3 million).

Meanwhile, the State Bank of Pakistan has informed the ECP that 100 candidates from different political parties are bank defaulters. The bank termed their particulars as “extremely dubious.” The PPP’s Hina Rabbani Khar, a former foreign minister, and Mian Manzoor Ahmed Wattoo, who are contesting national assembly seats, are included in the list of defaulters.

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