Political Funding

At what point do political contributions become a pure transactional arrangement based on “give and take”? Have our political parties become mere instruments of wealth accumulation for their “owners”?

There has been a new twist in the debate about financial contributions to political parties (principally by large business firms and promoters) as Navin Ramgoolam’s principal line of defence in the case around the infamous Rs 200M found in his safe seems to be that these sums represent contributions made by the party’s supporters since 2005. This is reminiscent of the statement made some years back by another political leader, Sir Anerood Jugnauth, who declared that the Sun Trust Building which is purportedly owned by the party had been financed by political contributions. That was his own way of justifying the practice of collecting money from private contributors on the occasion of general elections and other political events.


“When is the red line between justified contributions and corruption crossed? At what point do such contributions in fact become a pure transactional arrangement based on “give and take”? Have our political parties become mere instruments of wealth accumulation for their “owners”? Depending on the answers given to these questions, a really dark picture of our democratic setting and future can emerge. Depending on the answers given to these questions, a really dark picture of our democratic setting and future can emerge. Unfortunately the only conclusion that can be drawn from what has been observed in practice and all anecdotal evidence point to the most catastrophic scenario in case of no change…”


The practice of contributions to the coffers of political parties no doubt has a long history. The anti-independence campaign which had the support of the most reactionary fractions of the local “sugar barons” must have cost substantial amounts of money and would most likely have been bankrolled by the latter.

Two things must be said at the outset. Under our present laws, contributions to political parties from the corporate sector is not illegal. The rationale for such contributions is that the private sector operators, who also benefit from the operation of a working democracy, should contribute to the costs of holding regular general elections. Such a “working arrangement” has indeed served the system well and seemed to be well within the boundaries of acceptable democratic institutions until the end of the 1980s with the advent of the “economic miracle.”

Indeed one can trace the sudden inordinate growth in the sums contributed roughly to that time characterized, not unsurprisingly, by corresponding gigantic growths in budgetary expenditure and in contracts allocated by the State for public works and other procurement needs.

It is our contention that this excessive growth in the amounts of political contributions from that time onwards had the effect of changing the very nature of the phenomenon. For starters, these amounts are now largely over and above what is permissible expenditure allowed by the Electoral Supervisory commission as an aggregate for 62 candidates.

As at date we have two confessions from party leaders that provide clear indications of the nature of the beast we are examining. As mentioned above, Sir Anerood Jugnauth publicly stated in the late 1990s that the contributions obtained by the MSM party had been used, among other things, including the expenditure incurred for at least four general elections, for the construction of the Sun Trust Building for the party. Rough estimates would value the building in those days at tens of millions of rupees. More recently former Prime Minister Navin Ramgoolam has indicated that the Rs200 M+ found in his possession were in fact contributions from political donors dating back to 2005 and that he was merely holding on to these in a fiduciary capacity for the party.

There has been no similar “confession” from the leader of the MMM although the infamous cheque of Rs10M received from the much criticized BAI is evidence enough that his party is as much a part of the system as the others. There is therefore no reason to believe that the MMM did not receive its “fair” share of the jackpot.

Similarly the PMSD, which has managed to join the winning bandwagon at every general election under the leadership of Xavier Duval, would not be exempt from the pervasive practice of receiving solicited or unsolicited “contributions” from the private sector. The more so that the latter considers a PMSD presence in Cabinet as a safety valve against what would be considered as overtly anti-private sector measures.


“One can safely suggest that an intelligent guess would value the amount of contributions to political parties over the past 35 years at anything between one and one and a half billion rupees. These sums have essentially been collected around the holding of some 10 general elections over that period and would also include contributions made for the holding of the annual 1st May Meetings. We leave our readers to appreciate the degree of irony and of masquerade politics implied in the fact that Labour day has become an opportunity for the enrichment of a clique of political party owners…”


In any case the point is that based on the snippet of “revelations” mentioned above, one can safely suggest that an intelligent guess would value the amount of contributions to political parties over the past 35 years at anything between one and one and a half billion rupees. These sums have essentially been collected around the holding of some 10 general elections over that period and would also include contributions made for the holding of the annual 1st May Meetings. We leave our readers to appreciate the degree of irony and of masquerade politics implied in the fact that Labour day has become an opportunity for the enrichment of a clique of political party owners. There are presently no mechanisms or processes either at the level of the Electoral Supervisory Commission or even at the party structure levels to exercise any form of control on the origin or use of these funds.

The critical questions which therefore arise are the following: when is the red line between justified contributions and corruption crossed? At what point do such contributions in fact become a pure transactional arrangement based on “give and take”? Have our political parties become mere instruments of wealth accumulation for their “owners”?

Depending on the answers given to these questions, a really dark picture of our democratic setting and future can emerge. Unfortunately the only conclusion that can be drawn from what has been observed in practice and all anecdotal evidence point to the most catastrophic scenario in case of no change.

While all the mainstream political parties claim to be in favour of creating a legal framework regarding financial contributions, nothing has happened as they have all been successively in power. The reason for this persistent “status quo” despite the rhetoric can be easily understood in the light of the above. The issue is intrinsically related to a change in the functioning of political parties and their liberation from the stranglehold of family ownership.

 


* Published in print edition on 20 April 2018

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