Money and Politics

We are not alone in the world to be staring squarely at a challenging situation where an electoral and democratic process is being contaminated if not derailed by enormous sums of monies, where transactions and donations risk being a convenient shroud for black and even dirty money being “laundered”

The financing of the activities of political parties and/or the campaigns for the general elections is, we gather, on the drawing boards and legislative enactments could be forthcoming. According to the PM, an inter-ministerial committee has already reported its recommendations and the time for appropriate legislation has come. The political class and their leadership are, we believe, in the best of positions to know our glaring shortcomings although, or perhaps precisely because of this, large sections of an increasingly dubious population may feel that they should not be the only ones to have an input in the matter.

Recent events have underlined that our democratic shortcomings in fact cover a wider span of issues than simply the question of political financing but those are, in one way or another, inter-related and concern the state of the country’s governance. However, let us stick here to the narrower confines of political financing. Political finance legislation and regulations should avoid being seen as reactive measures to a governance crisis or to advantage one subset of players relative to another.  We should be also wary of accepting that resources and monies spent necessarily reflect into votes or electoral outcomes.

But the challenges posed by occult financing at massive reported levels have to be addressed. In last week’s issue of this paper, Rajiv Servansingh estimated occult funds to all political parties over the past several general elections at more than a billion Rupees.

At the global level, the combined dangers of such immense sums, the opacity, the money laundering, the cash transactions and the possible impact on policy orientation and capture, were highlighted by the former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in 2014:

“There is increasing evidence that corruption and unregulated donations are exercising undue influence on politics and undermining the integrity of elections. In some countries, money from organized crime has infiltrated politics to gain control over elected officials and public institutions. These threats to democratic politics help explain why large numbers of people around the world are losing faith in politicians and democratic processes.”

Locally, we have not discovered those unhealthy interactions in recent months but events around and since the 2014 general elections have raised the acuity of the questions and the risks of popular disaffection with the body politic as a whole. The explosive growth in campaign financing figures, the opacity around donations and transactions, the risks of “horse-trading” and policy capture could inevitably give the perception that wealth, however legitimate, dubious or even unlawful the sources, buys political patronage, secures influence on policy decisions and creates the conditions for increased future disparities in wealth. We do not need either to dwell on the potential abuse of state resources to the benefit of a ruling clan. Legislation that provides some adequate answers to the question of money in politics is therefore more than necessary.

A couple of riders are useful here. First off, as pointed out above, it will do us no harm to recognise that we are not alone in the world to be staring squarely at a challenging situation where an electoral and democratic process is being contaminated if not derailed by enormous sums of monies, where transactions and donations risk being a convenient shroud for black and even dirty money being “laundered”, where opacity and leadership control of vast unaccounted sums entertain the notion that political parties do not abide by rules that govern all other businesses, associations and citizens.

Second, there are different schools of thought and a variety of approaches to political financing and its control that have been adopted by a variety of more mature democracies. UK and generally Anglo-Saxon countries seem to have little forbearance for the use of public funds towards political parties, processes, activities and electoral campaigns. They prefer private funding albeit with detailed mandatory disclosure requirements for most political donations in the UK. A clear majority of Mauritians feel similarly disinclined under current structures and processes to more public largesse to the body politic, even if there is an increasing realisation that the culture of opacity around unaccounted, massive private funds must be weaned out.

Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy leaves the judiciary police offices in Nanterre, near Paris, France, March 21, 2018, after questioning regarding claims that his 2007 election campaign got funding from late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi

Third, few countries can boast of having got the legislative set-up and control mechanisms right at the first go. Legislation and practices will and should evolve with experience. The French legislation and cadre governing electoral campaigns and their funding was adjusted at least half a dozen times between its first version in 1988 and the latest version in 2013. In 1988, France was certainly not the earliest EU country to adopt a legislative framework for a situation that had gotten out of control, if past President Chirac’s condemnation and Sarkozy’s continuing judiciary wrangles with law enforcers are anything to go by.

Obviously the questions regarding political financing have to take account of our context and experiences and we suspect that that these have been amply analysed within government spheres and the State Law Office. At one end of the scale, if we accept the tenet that the State should not control how money is raised and spent in politics, we would still require that regulations and effective structures and mechanisms be in place to increase transparency of party political financing, if only to provide information to the electorate.

These may be accompanied by limits on donations from different sources and limits on campaign expenses over a defined pre-electoral period, say three months. Thus, political parties and candidates could be required to publish their campaign financing accounts which could be monitored on a weekly basis as in the UK.

Although enforcing a greater measure of transparency and accountability of electoral processes does not depend on public financing, the prospect of partial or total campaign expense re-imbursements (within reasonable pre-defined ceilings) by the state can constitute a powerful tool for inducing abeyance by the rules and regulations. This is the basis of the French formula, which reckons that the state has an important role in ensuring fairness between political parties and citizens.

A satisfactory formula to allow co-existence of state funding with controlled and transparent private funding can be a useful middle road. Even if, to benefit from state re-imbursements, several conditions of transparency and accountability may be imposed on political parties. The post-electoral re-imbursement approach has the added advantage of reflecting electoral outcomes in terms of MPs elected rather than a legislature that was voted in five years previously.

The detailed mechanisms and processes, the institution saddled with effective campaign funds control, the length of the pre-electoral period and the parameters of a caretaker government, the control of polls and air-time are among the many other aspects legislators have to consider. It is hoped the proposed Bill is given ample circulation and time for informed public comment before its passage in Parliament.

Given the low level of confidence in the capacity of the body politic for self-regulation, government may find it wise not to ignore the contributions and soft power of civil society, media and transparency activists. They constitute a guide to the general public’s increasingly exasperated expectations for better governance.


* Published in print edition on 27 April 2018

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