Tracking the vast amounts of money spent by presidential candidates and their parties has long been a challenge in Sri Lanka. A new report launched this week estimates that the Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) and the New Democratic Front (NDF) have accounted for nearly Rs. 1 billion in election campaigning expenses between 14-31 October. This alone shows the staggering amount of money at play in politics and the grave need to understand where such funds flow from.
The staggering figure accounts for some 99% of the total election-related expenditure during the given time frame, added the report, with the SLPP’s Rs. 574 million expenditure making up 60%, and the NDF’s Rs. 372 million the remaining 39%. The findings were disclosed the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV).
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. The unregulated use of finances could have an adverse impact on the conduct 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 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 demanding greater transparency on how candidates fund their campaigns or how funds flow between candidates and parties. Foundations established by various politicians or that 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.
Two draft bills, one titled ‘Election Campaign Finance Bill’, prepared by the Election Commission in consultation with poll observers and other stakeholders, and another, prepared by poll monitors, have made no progress since about 2017. However, Elections Commission Chairman Mahinda Deshapriya remains optimistic that they may be passed in time for the General Elections next year. For now, public vigilance remains the best option.