Polls monitors call for campaign finance laws before next election | Sunday Observer

Polls monitors call for campaign finance laws before next election

24 February, 2019

Voicing their collective concerns at the deliberate delays by Stakeholders who were failing to take the process forward, the Election Monitors said that The ‘Election Campaign Finance Bill’ should be passed in parliament prior to the next elections.

The Bill proposes a ceiling on polls campaign funding and restrictions on the source of funding for individual candidates and political parties, for purpose of election propaganda.

“There are two drafts of the Election Finance Bill, one prepared by the Election Commission (EC) in consultation with the polls observers and other stake holders, and another second draft collectively prepared by the Polls monitors led by PAFFREL and CMEV,” PAFFREL Executive Director Rohana Hettiarachchi said. It is understood that the draft prepared by the National Election Commission (NEC) has been submitted to the Attorney General for ‘fine tuning’. But it seems to be gathering dust with no one willing to take ownership of it, draft it into law and take it forward. If the process moved forward, the draft, with the AG’s approval would proceed to the legal draftsman and then to Parliament.

The NEC proposal would require political parties and independent groups to submit their audited Financial Statements within two months of the release of election results. While it incorporates provisions for baring of funding sources, the proposed law has not spelt out stringent penalties for offenders, other than depriving the candidate of his/her Seat, if elected.

In contrast, the polls observers have come out with a Draft containing proposals for a comprehensive Campaign Finance law with relatively harsh penalties that would certainly deter wrong-doers.

However a Legal Expert at the EC said, “Already there are punitive provisions in the existing Election Law. Therefore, once the new law is in place the old provisions can also be revived to mete out punishment to the offenders.”

PAFFREL Chief Hettiarachchi said that the draft of the Bill prepared by the Election Monitors, was handed over to the then Provincial Councils and Local Government Minister, Faiszer Musthapha, over a year ago. The draft was prepared before the Local Government polls of 2016.

“The Minister promised to table it in parliament yet it seems to have vanished,” he said.

The monitors have time and again said unchecked campaign financing was evil since it distorts people’s free will. “Investigations have found that certain candidates had spent Rs.30-40 million on just 400 households in their electorates during the local government election of 2016. Some houses were given new electricity and water connections as campaign bribes.”

“We have proof of these transactions through Right to Information (RTI) applications,” Hettiarachchi said, pointing out that these actions will help rich candidates to buy over the voters, and give them an undue advantage.

We have knowledge of political party representatives questioning potential candidates about how much they would spend on their campaigns. In one instance the candidates were asked to deposit Rs.300,000 in their bank accounts in order to be eligible for nomination. “The situation is so dire that we need to take immediate action over campaign financing.”

“No matter how much effort is made by the Election Commission to hold a free and fair election, the election will not be free if the rich are allowed to buy the votes,” National Convenor CMEV Manjula Gajanayake said.

Until it is passed, the polls observers say that it was uncertain whether this particular piece of law would be supported by the legislators, as it calls for action to restrict a popular mode of campaign financing. The Sunday Observer spoke to a cross section of parliamentarians on their views on the proposed law - State Minister of Highways and Road Development Ranjan Ramanayake said, even in developed countries such as the USA, there is a system to audit campaign funds. Former US President Barack Obama and former US Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton also published the details of their campaign funds in their twitter and Facebook accounts.The same practice is followed in Europe.Previously, the then Ravaya Editor Victor Ivan also raised concerns about this issue. It is well known that most of the party and campaign funds go to favoured parties. Nobody knows to which accounts these campaign funds are channeled and who receives the Interests thereon. This issue is under scrutiny in countries like Sri Lanka, India and Bangladesh. However, nobody is keen to bring a Bill to Parliament,in order to regulate this practice. As a State Minister of this Government, I cannot move a Private Members’ Bill. It can be moved either by the Government or an MP. It is no secret that money earned by some billionaire businessmen through money laundering is used for election and various other political campaigns. A huge amount of money is wasted as result. Media institutions as well as the poster campaigners earn huge amounts of such money. However the fact remains that campaign funds are not channeled to the party men properly.

JVP MP Vijitha Herath told the Sunday Observer that the issue of the Campaign Finance Bill was widely discussed, but not implemented. There is no question about introducing such a Bill and we are fully agreed about bringing in such legislation. It is time for the Government to initiate a discussion on this with other parties as well. The Election Commission has prepared a Campaign Finance draft bill containing the proposals made by the PAFFERAL and other election monitoring organisations.

The Election Commission has sent a copy of that draft to all political parties. However, the matter still remains outside the purview of Parliament. Therefore, the Government should enact a Bill without any further delay. MP Herath said, the JVP is the only political party which has furnished all details to the Election Commission, regarding funds it spent for elections. The real issue is that most political parties don’t furnish true facts and figures but forged documents regarding their campaign funds. The JVP reiterates its desire for transparency of campaign funding. The people have the right to know how a particular political party had received its funds and how much of it was spent for the election campaign. Despite the urgency of introducing a Campaign Finance Bill, the matter is only at the discussion level with no progress. It is incumbent on the Government to move this Bill. A mere Private Member presenting a Bill in this regard, won’t do. When an election is at hand, this topic comes becomes prominent, and thereafter it evaporates. The existing election laws are outdated and do not suit new technology and new publicity methods. Legislation should be changed to cater to the present day needs. The Election Commissioner had called upon the authorities to appoint a Select Committee for a complete review of this situation.

Non Cabinet Minister of Public Distribution and Economic Reforms Dr.Harsha de Silva told the Sunday Observer that campaign finance is something that countries like Sri Lanka should look into in a more structured and positive manner because allegations are rampant. As the Treasurer of the UNP, I have a duty to ensure that I submit my audited accounts to the Elections Commissioner on annual basis which I have already done. I heard that former Minister Basil Rajapaksa says that they were the only people who have submitted the accounts of their party. That is absolute nonsense because we have been doing it right throughout.

But I think there must be some sort of agreement across all parties on some meaningful campaign financing. I don’t know to what extent this can be monitored, but at least we must make a start. If the Government brings in this kind of Bill, we will certainly support it. I as the Treasurer of the UNP, would look at this in a very positive manner. I believe that in a country like Sri Lanka this kind of legislation is essential.