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Protecting democratic space


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As polls draw nearer, election monitors are stepping up to protect the democratic space for free and fair elections, which includes misinformation campaigns, social media, and campaign finance. The latter is particularly important as it can undermine the entire democratic process and distract from public interest.  

For several years, election 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 including 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 once they are 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.

Many countries have also evolved other systems to tackle fundraising by other means, especially the internet, where policing by conventional laws can be difficult. 

There are patent concerns that politicians might be persuaded to generate favourable decisions and, thus, appease those who have financed their campaigns. But adverse perceptions can be damaging, too. The community’s confidence in the integrity of the democratic process, in the Government itself, might be destabilised on the basis of a perception of a conflict of interest. Exposing, at the earliest opportunity, who stands behind the money flows – and doing so before the day of the polls – is essential if the process is to have any meaning. In the past, allegations emerged that payments could have flowed from companies linked to Perpetual Treasuries owner Arjun Aloysius to several politicians as well as concerns that foreign powers could be financially assisting certain parties. These are massive red flags that need to be addressed with stronger legislative action so that Sri Lanka’s democracy can be protected. 

 


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