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Protecting public trust


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In Sri Lanka, trust between the public and their representatives is rare. In the past few weeks there has been a spate of incidents largely linked to acceptance of cash payments by several key politicians that has dented public trust and called for a rethink on how campaign financing should be managed to improve transparency and accountability.  

International Trade State Minister Sujeewa Senasinghe, former Sports Minister Dayasiri Jayasekera and Field Marshal Sarath Fonseka are accused of accepting money from a company linked to Perpetual Group and its owner Arjuna Aloysious. Interestingly both Jayasekera and Senasinghe initially drew a distinction between accepting money for election campaigns and argued that it was not a conflict of interest because the cash was not for personal use. However, the problem is that these representatives hold public office and are expected to stand for public interest. Clearly this is only the tip of the iceberg in murky election campaign financing across all political parties and candidates. 

In fact the question of credibility filtered upwards into parliament to the extent that during appointments to the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) Speaker Karu Jayasuriya noted that if committee positions were only be held by recognised trustworthy politicians then there would be no appointments made. As elections edge closer it is ever more imperative to track the disproportionate spending on election campaigns when compared with the legal income of politicians.   

Watchdogs have urged lawmakers to be mindful of the importance of publicly disclosing sources of campaign funding as a minimum requirement when drafting provisions to limit spending. The unregulated use of finances could have an adverse impact on the carrying out of free and fair elections. The disclosure of campaign contributions, both monetary and in kind (e.g. payments by a contributor to a third party supplier), will significantly reduce the avenues for election campaigns to facilitate illegal activity, principally money laundering and undue influence in the electoral process.

In other countries there are provisions for political parties to declare their finances within a certain time period since they were received. Even though the level of transparency varies there is a strong need for this element of elections to be addressed as well. As a process that spends public money to elect public representatives, who in turn direct public money, it is essential that the entire system is given a legal overhaul to be more efficient.

Sri Lanka already has some laws that call for asset declaration by candidates but these do not cover the heftier party finances. There is also little attention paid by the media to demand greater transparency on how candidates fund their campaigns or how funds flow between candidates and parties. Foundations established by various politicians or have political links also campaign on behalf of certain candidates or parties and accept donations for the same.  

Laws requiring the disclosure of political donations are intended to secure and uphold the integrity of the electoral system and, in turn, the integrity of the decision-making of the Government. The goal is to prevent corruption by exposing those who might seek to wheedle their particular causes to the forefront of policymaking or, indeed, buy influence. Knowledge about who has financed politicians’ campaigns helps to expose potential conflicts of interest. It assists in keeping leaders accountable.


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