For a new Lanka, regulate campaign funding

By Ameen Izzadeen
I won’t vote for him; he is corrupt. I won’t vote for him; he is a racist. Such remarks uttered by young voters indicate that Sri Lanka’s politics is moving towards maturity. But wait a minute. The final results show that many voters had no qualms about casting their preference votes for the thug, the racist, and the corrupt — and, to boot, those who had faced or are facing murder charges.
This mixed bag of results indicates that the country has taken only a small albeit important step towards political maturity. But do not be disheartened. A journey of thousand miles begins with one small step. There will be challenges ahead in the journey towards that Sri Lankan haven where only the relatively honest will be elected to govern the country on the principles of good governance. ‘Relatively,’ because politics and honesty do not mix well to make the energy booster that the country is badly in need of.
We have just seen the end of what can be described as one of Sri Lanka’s cleanest general elections since Independence. Our past elections were tainted by impersonation, stuffing or swapping of ballot boxes, bribes, intimidation, violence, violations of elections laws, abuse of state media and public resources, computer jilmart and even corruption within the Elections Department itself. But the just concluded general elections were relatively free from these wrongdoings. Although the Elections Commissioner won much praise from the United Nations Secretary General, the United States, the European Union and other world powers, much needs to be done to ensure that the will of the people at an election is not distorted.
For this, the system needs to be strengthened – and now is the time to bring about a new political order founded on good governance. Wishful thinking, some may say. But politicians beware! This is the age of social media – a powerful tool at the hands of silent voters of the new generation. They are growing in numbers. In a decade or so, about 80 percent of the voters will be on social media – on Facebook, Twitter, Whatsapp and LinkedIn. Mr. or Ms. Politician, you cannot give promises and get away. You are being watched and warned, ridiculed and rewarded, criticised and crowned on social media. An analysis of social media discussions ahead of the elections indicated that a majority of educated youth were for good governance, and that it would not be easy for the United People’s Freedom Alliance to win the elections.
Last week, this column called on civil society groups to keep a tab on the promises that the politicians make and to hold them accountable. On Wednesday, the Ven. Maduluwawe Sobhitha Thera reminded the United National Party, the victor at the August 17 elections, that many people worked tirelessly for the victory and they would be keeping a watch on how the government was run. He urged the UNP leaders not to give posts to people tainted by corruption allegations. Corruption watching is a daunting task for civil society. Corruption is sure to follow a general election just like day follows night.
Political analysts have said a successful candidate spends as much as Rs. 300 million on his or her campaign. Imagine how much more it would have been, if they had been allowed to put up posters, cutouts and banners. On Wednesday, a foreign election observer noted that some candidates had spent as much as 500,000 euros — or more than Rs. 74 million – on their campaign. From where does the politician get such huge amounts of money? Well only a handful of politicians are capable of self-financing their campaigns. But most politicians may have mortgaged their property to find this amount of money or got it from unscrupulous businesspeople in the form or a loan or donation. Once in office, the politician is preoccupied with the thought of how to earn the money to redeem his or her property or pay back the loan or return the favour in some way to those who donated funds for the campaign. The candidate is forced into corruption. This is a vicious cycle.
To stop this rot, some good governance activists call for transparency in campaign funding or the imposition of a ceiling on campaign expenditure. But others say that since eliminating corruption is unrealistic, some sustainable level of corruption should be tolerated. This is why the proposed 20th Amendment to the Constitution assumes significance. Despite the democratic merits of the preferential voting system, its elimination will, to a great extent, minimise campaign costs – and corruption. Or like in the US, the system should be more transparent and regulated. The whole world knows that President Barak Obama and his Republican Party rival Mitt Romney spent more than US$ 1 billion each on the 2012 presidential race and from where they got that money. But do we know, how much our candidates spent on the 2015 general elections or how they raised that money?
In the US, the need to regulate campaign funds started with George Washington spending about US$195 (a huge sum at that time) in 1757 on food and drinks to win election to Virginia’s legislature. But today, despite laws and regulations aimed at ensuring transparency, campaign funding, which keeps rising with every election, has drawn much public debate with critics insisting that donations from individuals and the private sector can have a corruptive influence on candidates in the form of quid-pro-quo deals.
In keeping with the US example, the 20th Amendment should include provisions to set limits on a candidate’s campaign expenditure or make it mandatory for a candidate to disclose his or her audited campaign finance, clearly stating how much he or she got and from whom. Or else the amendment can work out a method of public financing of the campaigns of recognised political parties.
Or we may even follow the Indian example where a candidate contesting for the state assembly cannot spend more than US$ 32,000 (or SL Rs. 4.3 million) – and not more than US$ 80,000 (or SL Rs. 10.6 million) if he or she is contesting for the national legislature. Although there is no ceiling on the campaign expenditure of Indian political parties, the law requires them to submit accounts to the Elections Commission.
Money is necessary for electoral politics which in turn is part and parcel of democracy. But campaign financing, more often than not, paves the way for corruption. Although corruption stemming from campaign funding cannot be eliminated in full, it can be minimised by enacting laws to make campaign funding more transparent. President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe are talking like statesmen now. Five years down the line, the people will judge whether they are indeed statesmen worthy of being emulated by generations to come. For this, they should strengthen democracy and eliminate corruption. Let it begin by regulating campaign funding.
(This article first appeared in Daily Mirror, Sri Lanka on August 21, 2015)

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About ameenizzadeen

journalist and global justice activist
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