The issue of political financing is a constant in political discourse. The focus on it waxes and wanes according to which crisis of the moment is polarising public attention. This gives a pretext to relegate the issue yet again, but of course it will not go away as long as it is not resolved. It is not only in Mauritius that there is concern about the politics-big business/wealth nexus which allows the tweaking of polices and decisions to what may amount to the highest bidder. State financing is an option that has been invoked, but that would mean auditing the accounts and public disclosure – and the stakeholders may not quite like this path.
Of course, very few private sector chiefs have come out openly about their financing of political parties, in particular for electoral campaigns. Most Mauritians are left to make guesses about the large transfers of monies from private sector groups to party leaders, and they suspect that what are officially put down in annual reports as contributions to political parties do not reflect the reality. We are not here to ascertain the exact amounts that each of several private sector groups have actually offered to them; this may depend on their own forecast of who is most likely to win at the polls. However, one of the rare insights coming out on this matter came some few years ago from Tim Taylor, the former CEO of the Rogers Group, one of the country’s major private sector conglomerates, in the course of an interview to a newspaper. Amongst other things, he made some limpid statements about the private sector’s direct involvement in the financing of electoral campaigns of political parties and some of the candidates themselves.
It would be naïve to assume that private sector funding of political parties and individual politicians would be based on altruistic motives. For all we know, the private sector firmly believes in the exchange system, having gone several steps above the now obsolete barter system involving a one-to-one exchange in kind, although we cannot rule out the latter at the individual politician’s level.
Several high profile politicians from different countries have had their insider dealings with the private sector uncovered. Few of them have been successfully indicted when in power for having taken political bribes in exchange for favours. At one time, Tony Blair was on the bench answering to charges on the ‘cash for peerages’ scandal. Sudanese press reports said on Tuesday 23rd April 19 that huge secret safes belonging to the ousted President Omar Al-Bashir and his brothers had been seized at one of his offices, days after copious amounts of money were found at his home. The Public Prosecutor’s Office opened two investigations against Al-Bashir on charges of money laundering and possession of large sums of money without legal justification. This has happened elsewhere as well, and it has to be ascertained by investigation whether the monies found in the safes at Al-Bashir’s offices and in those of other leaders elsewhere come from contributions for electoral campaigns or from the proceeds of corruption. Anyway, it does look as if some political leaders entertain a special kind of relationship with safes.
It is always difficult to prove the link between the financing received and the favourable policy/administrative decisions taken in the context of the so-called “business-friendly” environment. Thus, there are not a lot of resounding cases involving abuse of office to enable the public to see the true image of their political “heroes”. There must have been many more skeletons in the Air Mauritius black box and in relation to other cases which have hogged the headlines for years. Sadly for the polity, we may never know.
However, the sheer scale of spending that we see during the local political campaigns point to the invisible presence of private donors placing heavy bets on their horses. In simple language, corruption remains the true basis of the terms of trade in political financing. This system helps politicians weave a web of unaccountability as regards the financing of their real campaign expenditures and the monies that they pocket for personal purposes.
It is not salutary for a handful of private companies to finance political campaigns as we know them. Here, a small bunch of footloose voters with little or no political conviction shift their loyalties, and hence electoral outcomes, for pecuniary benefits. It has been argued that we can eliminate this scourge and the parasitical opportunists by legislating that all political campaign funding should be by the State. Spending limits would and should in that case be prescribed and scrupulously observed by each candidate at the risk of invalidation of results. But there are also counter arguments and outright opposition to taxpayers financing the political activities and electoral campaigns of our local politicians; this must have much to do with the credibility deficit which the political class locally suffers – come to think of it, for good reasons in most cases.
However, even if taxpayer’s money is involved, one would like to think that the long-run costs to the public would be minimized as policies unrelated to the private interests of private companies can then be adopted. Moreover, there might be more sober political campaigns. Candidates will carry conviction if they have done their homework instead of being non-entities supported by the party for obscure reasons unrelated to real merit. Electoral bouts will then hopefully become more a battle of ideas than one of identities based on community, religion and caste affiliations.
For this positive turnaround to take place in our political landscape, the private sector should start getting the conviction that its funds have been cautioning the perpetuation of a poor political platform that falls short of equipping itself with forward thinkers such as those that engineer, for example, a Singapore. They may find it worthwhile to stop opening their purses and allow them to transgress bounds that must be respected by one and all. The public will benefit from a cleaner brand of politics.
* Published in print edition on 26 April 2019