Money and politicsElection campaign contributions and political corruption are a threat to fledgling democracies like Nepal
Neel Kantha Uprety
The role of political parties is vital for institutionalising and sustaining democracy. Political parties are instrumental in enhancing credibility and legitimacy of any governance system. In other words, they are the institutions having a direct interface with the common people and should be accountable to them. In a multiparty system, political parties compete for political power, generate democratic governments and shape public policies.
Political parties get legitimacy for their plans, policies and programmes and assume power to govern the nation through a genuine electoral process. If they fail to address popular concerns and aspirations, they could be rejected in the next elections. In order to restore and maintain citizens’ trust in political parties and politicians, it is essential that they be regulated through clear and unambiguous laws, and their financial transactions are maintained systematically and transparently.
Political parties need financial resources to be more assertive and visible. Access to the media, materials and human resources depends on the availability of financial resource. In a state of acute shortage of financial resources, many political parties with ideal visions, sound principles and robust missions cannot achieve meaningful participation in governance, and eventually cease to retain the limelight. Therefore, it is necessary that a legislative regulatory framework has provisions for providing political parties sufficient room to obtain adequate resources in a lawful manner. Such money must be legitimate and not be a means of political corruption. Nevertheless, injection of illegal and suspicious money into politics has been a matter of common concern and a challenge to election management bodies (EMBs) in Asia and Africa.
Buying elections and candidates are the two most dangerous aspects of the application of illicit money by political parties and candidates for winning or ruining elections. The vicious circle of receiving money illicitly, spending it to get a chair in an elected body and then making more money to win the next election is a perpetuating disease in nascent democracies. Around the world, various mechanisms and means have been applied to prevent the injection of a huge amount of illegitimate money into elections. Some of them are allowing parties to raise money legally from individuals and corporate bodies, state funding of political parties based on their election performance, subsidies or grants for research activities, and limitations on granting money to political parties by individuals and profit-making organisations. However, the world has commonly experienced that this is easier said than done.
There is always the question about putting a ceiling on the election expenditure of a political party or candidate. During the last two decades, the Election Commission of Nepal (ECN) has increased the spending limit for a candidate fourfold to keep up with inflation. However the ceiling fixed for political parties and a candidate’s campaign expenses is said to be way too low. It is disgraceful to hear and remain silent to unofficial statements made by some elected representatives: “I did not spend as much as my fellow candidates, but it was five times higher than the limit set by the ECN.” This provides an insight into the spending patterns of contestants. Candidates and political parties spend money to the extent of having to sell their personal property. This is the question that needs to be answered by the responsible agencies. So what the ceiling on the election expenditure for a candidate should be is a debatable matter.
Mum’s the word
Some political scientists have said that the spending limit should be closer to the actual expenses so that there will be fewer violations. Nepal’s Election Commission Act, 2007 has authorised the ECN to issue an Election Code of Conduct for political parties and candidates contesting elections. Accordingly, the ECN fixes the ceiling on election expenditure for a candidate in a single member constituency under the First Past the Post (FPTP) system in the same manner as it does for political parties under the proportional representation (PR) system. The Election Commission Act, however, does not say what the campaign spending limit should be, and why it should be so low or so high.
The ceiling for election spending has been increased fourfold in two decades, but this has not stopped candidates from exceeding the limit. Due to the official limits, candidates rely on illicit money contributed by favoured corporate industries and business houses. It is said that corporate houses run the elections even in the developed democracies through their campaign contributions. Such unaccounted and undisclosed money put into an election campaign is a severe challenge to the objective of creating a level playing field. Political parties and candidates could return the favour to their donors by changing the policy to their liking when they gain power. This has a detrimental effect on the overall governance system. The restrictive campaign finance system leads to corrupting the whole political system of fledgling democracies.
In Nepal, it is surprising that the election expenditure details submitted by candidates and political parties tend to be within the permissible range while the actual expenditure would have crossed the ceiling many times over. Owing to the common interest of hiding the actual election campaign costs, political parties and their candidates flout the rules made for controlling spending, and hence will not complain against each other under a mutually beneficial agreement of mum’s the word.
In order to prevent illicit money in an election campaign and break the political corruption cycle, the following should be provisioned in electoral laws:
Provision of state funding for political parties based on their election performance;
Strong penalty provisions in electoral campaign finance related laws;
Transparent mechanism for raising and spending money during election campaigns;
Strict compliance with fundraising rules;Serious penalty for violation of campaign finance regulations;Systematic accounting and periodic reporting thereof;
Dissemination of information about expenditure ceiling for political parties and candidates by EMBs for public scrutiny;Conscious and watchful civil society; Disclosure of property by candidates at the time of filing nomination papers.
The problem is who is going to bell the cat? Political parties are the main players in an election and the legislature. They may not want to be restrained by laws with regard to party and campaign funding. Various indirect and ultimately more effective measures can be adopted for reducing and finally eliminating political corruption—electoral reform, systematic and continuous civic and electoral education and poverty reduction through equal opportunities to access public resources.
Uprety is a former chief election commissioner