Cleaning up elections in Sri Lanka | Sunday Observer

Cleaning up elections in Sri Lanka

Anti-corruption activists and polls observers step up calls for the enactment of campaign finance law in the wake of new allegations that Kurunegala District MP Dayasiri Jayasekera took a Rs 1 million donation from the alleged criminal at the centre of the Treasury Bond Scam. A Framework for Campaign Finance Law formulated by the Elections Commission is currently with the Legal Draftsman, but polls observers privately express reservations about the draft, saying it does not go far enough to regulate how political campaigns are funded

For a long time in Sri Lanka, elections have been anything but clean.

Former Presidential Secretary Lalith Weeratunga, once the country’s top civil servant, is the only top official of the Rajapaksa Administration to be convicted and serving a three year jail sentence to date. His crime: Misappropriating Rs 620 million from state coffers to buy and distribute ‘sil redhi’ to voters ahead of the January 2015 presidential election.

That election three years ago, saw unprecedented abuse of state power and resources and outright vote buying that went largely unchecked by authorities overseeing the polls at the time. Fertiliser, sewing machines, clocks, calendars and books were a few of the items ‘handed out’ to electors by the Rajapaksa presidential campaign in 2014-2015 – all of them constituting election bribes. Many of these items, subsequent financial investigations have found, were purchased for distribution using public money.

By contrast, the local government election in February 2018 was an unprecedentedly peaceful poll. The election took place under new laws and under a fully functional and independent Elections Commission whose powers were strengthened through the 19th Amendment to the Constitution, enacted in April 2015. Some isolated cases of voter bribing and abuse of state resources was reported, but independent polls observers declared the election largely free of abuse and held in a free and fair manner.

Despite the strengthening of election laws and empowering the Elections Commission, the one conversation political parties across the board are hesitant to engage in is the discussion over how political parties and individual candidates are funded. In the aftermath of CID revelations about UPFA MP Dayasiri Jayasekera accepting a campaign donation from, calls are mounting about the need to address the gaping vacuum in Sri Lanka’s election laws to regulate campaign funding and spending through comprehensive campaign finance laws.

The Framework for Campaign Finance Law is currently with the Legal Draftsman, after a cabinet paper submitted by President Maithripala Sirisena on September 29, 2017 was approved by Cabinet on October 17, 2017. According to the Cabinet paper, the Elections Department has been holding discussions on Campaign Finance Regulations with political parties since 2013. The legal framework is based on proposals made by the Elections Commission and includes a ceiling on election expenses and requirements for political parties and candidates to submit a summary of election expenses, a senior official at the Elections Commission told the Sunday Observer.

However, independent polls observers have privately expressed reservations about the proposed draft legislation, saying the measures do not go far enough to regulate the way political campaigns, candidates and parties are funded.

“What is important now, is for the public to learn who is funding political parties and candidates – is Perpetual Treasuries backing my candidate - that is what the clamour is for and that is what a campaign finance law must cover,” said a senior official at an election monitoring body that did not wish to be named.

Ideally, experts on campaign finance reform say, a special account should be maintained by political parties and independently audited. These accounts should clearly maintain where the money flows in and how it is being spent by political parties and candidates.

If the new proposed law only imposes a ceiling on spending and requires an expense report by political parties, there are fears that it could go the way of the politicians asset declarations – be filed away at the Commission and never revealed to the public. Since political parties operate as private entities and are not covered by Right to Information (RTI) legislation, the Commission would not be bound to reveal the details to the public either.

The debate on campaign finance law in Sri Lanka has centred largely around the angle of limiting spending on political campaigns, says RTI Manager, Transparency International Sri Lanka, Sankhitha Guneratne, a fact that could explain why the Election Commission framework for campaign finance legislation prioritises the ceiling on campaign spending. Limiting campaign expenses means that unnecessary expenses in election campaigns could be regulated and that would reduce inequality in the system and also limit vote buying, Guneratne explains.

But another mechanism is to introduce donation bans or limits, which is currently a main issue, she said.

“The purpose of introducing donations bans or limits is to curb undue influence. With this, our debate is largely derailed because we are looking at it in terms of limiting campaign expenses if we do that we can’t really stop this issue of undue influence, which is what is in issue right now. This is why we need to introduce donation bans and limits,” Gunaratne emphasised.

A third option, Guneratne says, is public funding for election campaigns that puts the burden on the public but also gives them greater control over a candidate’s or party’s behavior. “This may seem like a radical approach but even in existing parliamentary election law there is a provision that states that based on the number of votes a person or party has gained in a previous poll, they may be eligible for public funding,” the TISL official noted.

The issue at the heart of mechanisms however is disclosure, Gunaratne emphasises. “If you really want to regulate financing, the disclosure of sources of finances is really important. Disclosure also means disclosing in time so that voters can make an informed decision at the election,” she explained.

The TISL has called the mandatory public disclosure of campaign funding sources as a “minimum requirement”, when drafting legal provisions to limit campaign spending. Only this kind of disclosure of funding will expose the type of special interests, businesses and foreign entities with vested interests in particular politicians, with a view to being afforded political benefits when the candidate assumes power.

What the TISL is calling for in terms of regulating campaign finance is the introduction of what is known as an “Interest Register”. The register would show any matter in which a politician has an interest, such as a business or any other project. “This register should also be declared in time for voters to make a choice,” Guneratne asserted.

Speaking to Sunday Observer, Convenor of the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) Manjula Gajanayake said elections monitors were disillusioned by the fact that the Elections Commission failed to hold discussions with all stakeholders before submitting the campaign finance proposals to the President.

“At the very least, the polls monitoring missions should have been involved,” Gajanayake insisted, “but despite repeated requests, we have never seen the Election Commission proposals for regulating campaign finance.”

Provincial Council elections are next on the cards, but it is unlikely that campaign financing regulations will come into force ahead of that poll, given that politicians across party lines are unlikely to whole-heartedly back the legislation. But if the revelations about MP Jayasekera’s compromised campaign donor, and the public outcry over his conduct is anything to go by, strong campaign finance laws that mandates funding disclosure could prove a powerful deterrent against corruption, by informing the voter, about what kind of money and interests back their elected representatives, well ahead of polling day.