Election year is here. Poll expenses major cause for concernQuestions asked: Who funds politicians and why do they do that? Observers say costly polls are a source of corruption.
A statement by Nepali Congress leader Shashanka Koirala on poll expenses has once again raised the issue of Nepal’s costly elections, which are becoming costlier by the passing years.
On Saturday, in what looked like an honest statement, Koirala, a member of the House of Representatives, said that he spent Rs60 million in the 2017 elections.
“I had spent just Rs80,000 in the first Constituent Assembly [elections], which increased to Rs30 million in the second Constituent Assembly [elections] held in 2013,” he said, addressing a programme of the Nepali Congress-affiliated Nepal Student Union in Kathmandu.
“And the expense shot up to Rs60 million in the last elections. Do you want to contest from my constituency? I am ready to leave,” he said. “You will have to arrange Rs 60 to 70 million.”
Koirala’s statement, however, could put him in the soup regardless of how innocuous it was, as the Election Commission had put an expenses ceiling for the individuals fighting parliamentary elections. No individual or party, however, has submitted the real expense details to the commission, fearing action.
Koirala’s statement also comes within hours since the Election Commission enforced the code of conduct for the upcoming local elections.
His remark that increasing election expenditure is a matter of concern, however, is a reality.
“What Koirala has claimed is just the tip of the iceberg. Most of the candidates have breached the ceiling yet no one has been booked,” Binod Sijapati, an economist who led a study on the expenditures in 2017 elections for the Election Observation Committee, told the Post. “As Koirala claimed, the election expenditure has increased significantly in every election.”
The study by the Sijapati-led team had revealed that each candidate winning the federal parliamentary elections under the first-past-the-post system spent an average of Rs21.3 million against the ceiling of just Rs2.5 million. The runners-up spent an average of Rs14.9 million and the remaining candidates spent Rs8.5 million.
Those who have studied election financing in the country say mostly the corporate and business houses and the contractors pour money for the candidates during elections. They spend the money with a hope that after winning the elections, the leaders would formulate policies favouring them or ensure them the contracts in construction works. This clearly creates a space for crony capitalism which has been the bane of Nepal.
Experts have long said that the more expensive the elections, the more corruption in the country. But authorities by and large have failed to pay heed to their advice.
“Whoever funds politicians, they do so after calculating the return. The winners then are obligated to return the favour and they do so either through policies or by creating a conducive environment,” said Sijapati. “This ultimately comes at the cost of the country and the people.”
The commission has fixed a maximum of Rs750,000 to be spent for a mayoral candidate in the metropolis. However, in a consultation meeting at the Election Commission to discuss the ceiling on February 10, Keshab Jha, a leader of the Loktantrik Samajbadi Party, had said the mayoral candidates should be allowed to spend at least Rs50 million.
“The commission’s ceiling is unscientific and too low. It is not enough,” he said. “It costs around Rs50 million to contest the local elections. The commission must allow the candidates to spend the amount.”
In addition, the well wishers of a particular candidate are the second category of people who support them financially, observers say.
Such people get appointed to different political positions by the government though some of such support is without interest.
The candidates who have remained in power mobilise the money they have earned through corruption, they say.
“Some of the candidates spend by selling their property and taking loans. Once they win the elections, they tend to recoup the expenditure through different means, some of which are obviously illegal,” Pradip Pokharel, chairperson of the Election Observation Committee Nepal, told the Post. “The increasing election expenditure ultimately promotes corruption.”
Pokharel said they have found that the money also comes from foreign land during the elections. For instance, organisations supporting the Hindu movement abroad support the party that carries the Hindu agenda. Similarly, different non-government organisations and international non-governmental organisations finance the campaign in the name of strengthening the parties.
“This is possible because the commission is not taking stern measures to curb extravagance in the elections. It is not doing so because even election expenditure by the commission is not transparent,” said Poudel. “It seems there is a mutual understanding between the parties and the commission to remain silent on each other’s wrongdoing.”
Observers say in the name of fast-track spending, the election expenditures of the commission are not transparent and these are left without investigation. In addition to issuing warnings, the commission can even scrap the candidacy if it finds that the ceiling and other codes of conduct have been violated. However, it has never done that.
Officials at the commission admit that they don’t have a strong mechanism to track the expenditures of individual candidates.
“We do monitor. However, it is hard to find evidence to establish that the candidates have exceeded the ceiling,” Yagya Bhattarai, a joint-secretary at the commission’s legal department, told the Post. “Therefore, we have to rely on the reports the candidates present to the commission.”
Every candidate must submit a detailed report explaining how much they spent during the polls. All of them claim that they did not exceed the ceiling.
But if Koirala’s statement is anything to go by, he clearly spent above the ceiling set by the Election Commission.
The commission had set a cap of Rs2.5 million for each candidate directly contesting a seat for the lower house. The amount Koirala claimed to have spent is 12 times higher.
Sijapati says the commission doesn’t have the morale to investigate and take actions against the leaders. He argues that the expenditure is not going to slow down until the voting mass realises that extravagance in the elections is wrong.
“This trend is not going downward unless people start questioning the source of the money,” he said. “I think that will take time.”