Election contributions revelations: Scandal or crime? | Sunday Observer

Election contributions revelations: Scandal or crime?

Shock waves hit the Sri Lankan political scene in the past few weeks, with different members of Parliament admitting to having accepted what was described as ‘campaign donations’ from Perpetual Treasuries Limited, a company implicated in what is arguably the most sensational financial debacle of recent times – the case of the Central Bank treasury bonds.

As the news broke, many who had claimed positions of integrity fell from grace, and had to take defensive positions. Assuming for a moment that the defense of ‘campaign donations’ was true, are we then correct to feel the sense of betrayal that we felt? After all, are candidates not entitled to be supported through financial donations?

Yet the news unsettled us. We were left with a nagging feeling of injustice. The citizens of a country must surely know who backs whom in an election campaign? If not, how could we know that once elected, the politician will work for the common good, and not for their sponsors?

How much money changed hands? When did it happen? How do we know whether the money was used for the campaign or to buy a luxury apartment? Was the money given to the party or to the candidate? All legitimate questions. However, the most important question remains: How is it that we, as the citizens who vote for candidates and parties, have no way of knowing the answers?

Election candidates are required to file declarations of their assets and liabilities within three months of their nomination. As comprehensive as the declaration form is, it does not contain details of election donations. The financial reports submitted by political parties to the Election Commission only contain the financial details of the party, and not of any individual party member.

Disclosure essential for accountability

There is no law regulating political or campaign finance, except in very limited circumstances – parties must file their financial records with the Election Commission to maintain their ‘recognised political party’ status, and parties garnering a certain number of votes in a previous election are eligible for a negligible amount of State funding. There is also limited free access to State media and postage. It is evident that such regulation does not even begin to address the issues raised above. There is no conflict of interest register for public servants or politicians. Therefore, it is not only the citizen that is left in the dark. As the law stands now, the authorities cannot know either.

It would appear, therefore, that the public outrage is justified. To answer the opening question, accepting such campaign donations is currently legal. Not to disclose them is legal. It remains, however, a scandal – one that must be addressed immediately through legal reform and its corresponding implementation.

There is no question that disclosure of financial and non-financial contributions is key in beginning to regulate campaign finance. Ensuring that campaign contributions and expenses in full or above a specified threshold are subject to timely scrutiny, allows public monitoring, provides a deterrent to giving in to vested interests, and most importantly, enables informed voting. Source, quantum, destination and purpose are essential components of disclosure to inform voter choice. It has the potential to curb undue influence, create a level playing field and to foster healthy competition. The information disclosed must be produced in an accessible, simple manner, and made available publicly. Incentives can even be created for donors to report campaign contributions, creating a pathway to verify the disclosures made by candidates or parties.

Disclosure of conflicts of interest, too forms a key tool in inspiring the confidence of the public and protects politicians from unsubstantiated aspersions being cast against them. Collectively, these measures lead to enhanced integrity of the electoral process.

However, disclosure alone does not cure all ills. Based on what is sought to be achieved in the particular context, further regulation may be necessary. In the situation we now find ourselves in, one burning question keeps coming up – what did these Members of Parliament do in return for the vast amounts of money they received?

Ban or limit campaign donations

One way to avoid this issue is to ban or limit campaign donations. If a country wishes to make sure that certain donors do not unduly influence a candidate, a ceiling on contributions can be introduced, based on category. If foreign interests are not welcome, they can be limited or banned. A similar approach can be taken in relation to donations from private entities that are in any sense concerned with the State, in the form of bids, contracts or otherwise. Corporations that have special interests could also be restricted in contributing. In adopting these measures, undue influence being brought to bear on candidates who become politicians can be averted, serving as a safety buffer for candidates as well.

Excessive campaign spending

Another concern that has been consistently highlighted in Sri Lanka, is the excessive expenditure on election campaigns, forcing each candidate in turn, to either have considerable personal resources, or to depend on external contributions. The problem with the former, is that it prevents those who are less privileged from entering and remaining in politics, thus creating inequality. Limiting campaign expenditure to a specified amount prevents undue dependency on large donors, minimises spending, and levels the playing field, thus preventing the distortion of focus from the real issues that require public debate and attention.

Public funding is a third option that has gained international traction over the years, and remains a possible option for Sri Lanka. The role of a comprehensive, effective and enforceable disclosure regime remains a vital precursor to enforcing each of these systems, if introduced.

While there is consensus on the need for campaign finance reform in this manner, it is met with a unique challenge – it is those who we seek to control – the lawmakers - who must enact laws to regulate themselves.

It is unlikely, therefore, that any party or politician would champion the cause with the necessary level of commitment or enthusiasm. However, it must not be forgotten that a reasonable system of regulation would afford protection to honest politicians from allegations of wrongdoing, as well as ensure accountability towards the public.

The moment is upon us to undertake comprehensive, considered campaign finance reform, born from a call from the affronted citizenry of Sri Lanka. Just as we entrust the sovereignty of the people upon our representatives, we must demand greater accountability. Public hearings can be held, petitions signed and each politician called on to account for their actions or inaction in introducing regulation in the manner proposed above. Let the narrative be told, and it can form the basis upon which each representative may then stand firm or fall.

[The writer is AAL, Manager, Right to Information, Transparency International Sri Lanka]