(by Nazima Raghubir)
Modern legislation demanding greater levels of financial transparency by political parties is clearly needed in Guyana. The electorate has a right to know by what means political parties generate revenues to make them survivable especially when it comes to the funding of election campaigns.
The list of requirements is a tall order but the current political scenario that has been stained with allegations of corruption and cronyism. Greater transparency and accountability are probably the least citizens can demand of politicians.
Campaign financing laws represent a small but meaningful step in pursuit of political accountability. In Guyana, the possibility of such regulations makes an appearance every now and then on the campaign trail.
In recent times, regulating funding of political parties was first publicly pursued by the late Sheila Holder, an Alliance for Change Member of Parliament.
A motion entitled: “Political parties Campaign Financing” was tabled in the 9th Parliament but never approved. It sought to press the government to bring to the National Assembly, campaign financing laws with an aim to “curtail abuse of public resources by the incumbent leading up to and during elections”.
The motion pointed out a few burning issues had been long ventilated. These include the lack of adherence to the existing clauses in the Representation of the People’s Act that seek to regulate party election spending. The motion determined that the clauses were “meaningless.”
Fast forward to the 2011 elections, the very issue of political parties ignoring these clauses was pointed out in a report by the Commonwealth Observer Group. Article 108 of the Representation of the People’s Act is “not respected” the observer group wrote.
Article 108 is the only legislated requirement that speaks to some form of monitoring of electoral spending by political parties. Last revised in 1990, it is deemed as outdated in addressing ever changing challenges confronting political accountability.
The clauses ask that political parties follow several simple procedures. For example, political parties have to submit, along with their lists of representatives, a financial declaration. That financial declaration which is submitted to the Chief Elections Officer must contain statements of among other things payments made by elections agents, personal expenses paid by candidates, monies received by candidates or any other party members for campaign purposes.
The Commonwealth Observer report points out that failure to make this declaration is deemed an “illegal practice” adding that the law remains “largely symbolic and are respected in the breach”. The law is also vague when it comes to pointing out what exactly is this illegal practice and what penalties follow.
Despite signing a Code of Conduct in 2011 which among other things speak to adherence to “laws pertaining to campaign financing and accountability” there is no information to suggest that political parties made declarations to GECOM under Article 108. This may have prompted the Commonwealth Observer Group to advocate for the “proper implementation of the laws”.
We will use the 2011 national and general elections to show why Guyana needs to strengthen its accountability image and political financing laws. It seems like all political parties in the race for political power were not forthcoming with costs associated with their elections campaign. The incumbent People’s Progressive Party (PPP) faced the brunt of scrutiny having been accused of misusing state funds and apparatus for election campaigning.
The Commonwealth Report cited examples of this. “The state-owned Guyana Sugar Corporation vehicles allegedly being used to transport PPP/C supporters to rallies” and “on November 4th President Bharrat Jagdeo approved across-the-board increases in salaries for all government employees retroactive to January 2011 and payable a few days before the election.
There are also complaints about spending in Hinterland communities with allegations surrounding the misuse of public funds for elections campaigning. But there is little evidence to substantiate this. The Commonwealth Observer Report did document complaints made by Opposition parties during the last elections when they accused the government of “handing out $20,000 (or US$100) each to hundreds of Lethem residents from the PPP/C’s Region 9 Headquarters…”
Outside of these examples, most parties steered clear of declaring budget figures for campaigning in the last elections. A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) estimated that its budget would be around US$6 million. What it actually spent is anyone’s guess.
In October 2011, the online news agency Demerara Waves estimated that the PPP’s elections campaign could have cost up to $240 million or US$1.2 million.
“From Grassroots to Airwaves, Paying for Political Parties and Campaigns in the Caribbean” a report published by the Organisation of American States (OAS) and International IDEA in 2005, examined statements made about the 2001elections, where “concerns have been expressed about vast sums expended on the electronic media campaign advertisements and on large rallies at which thousands are entertained by popular singers, big bands and dancers and given food and alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages”. The report finds too that the “major political players keep their campaign costs a secret”.
The report drives home the point that political parties see and have no incentives to adhere to regulations set out in the Representation of the People’s Act, and we may add that there is no public pressure for political parties to declare their finances. Making a case to change electoral financing laws may not be everyone’s business but Dr Daniel Zovatto, Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, International IDEA feels that in an unregulated political environment should be avoided at all costs.
“Latin America and the Caribbean is also a region in which organised crime – particularly drug trafficking – is involved in the movement of billions of dollars every year, and is therefore capable of corrupting and subverting democratic institutions.
“If tackling regulation of political financing is an urgent task for democracies in this region, it is because the wide range of risks that comes with a lack of effective regulation has become evident,” said Dr Zovatto.
He was addressing a forum aimed at strengthening political parties and campaign financing in the region last year and also pointed out that there is an obvious insalubrious relationship between politics and money.
Dr Zovatto gave the politicians who attended that meeting some food for thought when he quoted from a report published by the Global Commission which, in part, reads: “For all democracies, rich and poor, old and new, poorly regulated political finance is an important threat to elections with integrity.”
Such a threat will continue to persist in the absence of the required legislative and regulatory reform.