CMEV estimates Rs. 1 b spent on publicity by two main candidates

Wednesday, 6 November 2019 00:45 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

  • 99% or Rs. 934 m borne by SLPP and NDF between 14-31 Oct. 
  • SLPP accounts for 60%, NDF 39%
  • Total expected to nearly double from 2015 polls
  • As official data limited, data gathered through stringent analysis, cost estimates 
  • CMEV calls for new financing legislation

By Madushka Balasuriya 

A new report by election monitors released yesterday estimates that the Sri Lanka Podujana Party (SLPP) and the New Democratic Front (NDF) have accounted for nearly Rs. 1 billion in election campaigning expenses between 14-31 October.

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 372 million the remaining 39%.

The findings were disclosed in Colombo by the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV), whose Election Campaign Cost Monitoring initiative is part of its broader mission of monitoring election violence. The special unit, according to CMEV, is a step towards greater transparency and accountability in election campaign financing.

“In Sri Lanka, there is no legal framework or regulatory mechanism for election campaign finance and finance costs. However, the advocacy efforts on the part of civil society organisations, led by election monitoring bodies, will continue until a formal and legally enforceable legislation or a regulatory on campaign finance is formulated and implemented,” stated a media release.

“The main objective is not to just focus on figures, but to create public and societal discourse on the impact of unlimited and unregulated election campaign financing, and in turn highlight the dire need for campaign financing legislature in Sri Lanka.”

As per the findings, in the 2019 Presidential Election set to take place on 16 November, it is estimated that campaign-related expenses of all candidates will reach some Rs. 5.5 billion, nearly double the amount incurred in the 2015 elections (Rs. 2.705 billion), and almost eight times as much as what was spent by candidates in 2005 (Rs. 712 million).

The CMEV report focuses on four key areas: printed media, electronic media, social media, and other costs (ground level campaigning - public rallies, meetings, visibility items, and also costs affiliated with the misuses of state property etc.) 

It must be noted however that these estimates are just that: estimates. Procuring official data and information on campaign-related activities is notoriously difficult in Sri Lanka, and as such much of the estimates have been garnered through in-depth research and analysis into each of the candidate’s public campaigning efforts.

“This is only an analysis of official expenditure, and does not include unofficial costs. However as it stands, there is no way to see the source of campaign financing, and even what is disclosed for us to see where exactly it has been spent,” explained CMEV National Coordinator Manjula Gajanayake at a media briefing yesterday.

“We used publicly available information, in terms of ads taken out in print and online; we scoured through thousands of pages on Facebook trying to decipher what exactly constituted a political advert. We also acknowledge that some work done for campaigns might be on a volunteer basis, but there is no way to differentiate that at the moment.”

On the whole, however, the findings paint as accurate a picture as there has ever about election campaign financing, while also asking pertinent questions about the source of the financing and the credibility of candidates, who may be indebted to ghost donors after being elected.

“Where the money comes from, whether it’s drug money, or elsewhere, will remain unknown.” Gajanayake also added that of the three main candidates, only National People’s Power candidate Anura Kumara Dissanayake had come anywhere close to disclosing the actual cost of his campaign’s financing. During the 14-31 October period, Dissanayake’s NPP party had incurred Rs. 15 million in election-related expenses.

“You can go to the Election Commission website where parties have given their accounts. The NPP is the only party that comes close to the estimate, the others don’t make sense. So when these main parties say that their financing capacity is around 10 million rupees, but end up spending millions more, where is that money coming from? This is why we need transparency.

“And if you consider that the estimate for the entire election is 5.5 billion, we think at this rate it could go as high as Rs. 10 billion.”

In total, CMEV has 17 staff members stationed in the campaign finance and monitoring unit, which includes two data analysts and two data-entry personnel. The initiative is meanwhile is conducted with the help of Management Systems International, Inc. (MSI) of USAID, which is providing Rs. 7 million in financial support.