Cap on election expenditure, a long-felt need | Sunday Observer

Cap on election expenditure, a long-felt need

5 December, 2021

Heeding a long-drawn out call for a solution to the growing expenditure in election campaigns in Sri Lanka, the Cabinet of Ministers on November 30, approved the proposal by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to introduce new laws to control election expenditure by candidates and political parties.

Accordingly, the legal draftsman is to draft legislation to make provisions for the control of election expenses. This follows consultations with the relevant parties by the Parliamentary Select Committee to identify appropriate reforms of the election laws and the electoral system and to recommend amendments, to introduce new provisions.

The Government has taken this decision to uphold the sovereign power of Sri Lankan citizens in keeping with the principle of universal suffrage, to ensure free and fair representation in elections.

Steady increase

Since 1977, Sri Lanka saw the steady increase in competition at election campaigns, and spending of millions by candidates to secure votes, impacting negatively on the will of the people. The issue had been a recurring topic of discussion throughout the years but no action was taken to address it thus far, except a Cabinet approval in 2017 to this effect.

“In Sri Lanka, the need to control the expenses incurred by candidates or parties contesting elections has been discussed. Approval was given at the Cabinet Meeting held on October 17, 2017 to amend the existing Ordinances to make provisions to minimise the illegal conduct of elections,” the Government Information Department said in a statement.

“The Parliamentary Select Committee appointed to identify the reforms related to the structure and rules of Parliamentary elections and submit amendments has reached an agreement in consultation with the relevant parties. Accordingly, the Cabinet of Ministers approved the proposal presented by the President to advise the Legal Draftsman to draft proposed amendments taking into account the above approvals and consensus,” the statement added.

Campaign finances

With the new legislation, a requirement is likely to be in place to reveal all campaign finances following the end of an election.

This had been the practice in the 1960s and there are famous legal cases where candidates were forced to step down from office following revelations made on expenditure. According to Co-Cabinet Spokesman Dullas Alahapperuma, prior to 1977, regulations were in place for election-related spending. However, with the introduction of the proportional representation electoral system, these regulations did not make their way to the new legislation. It is hoped that with new provisions, a level playing field would be created for candidates to campaign and to conduct freer and fairer elections.

PAFFREL was one of the significant voices against the excessive spending by candidates, calling for laws to set a ceiling to the maximum amount spent for those contesting elections. According to them, there had been records of a candidate spending Rs. 40 million at LG polls. PAFFREL had taken legal action against him based on the information obtained under the Right to Information Act.

The Centre for Monitoring Election Violence said at the last Parliamentary polls, candidates have spent Rs. 2.2 billion over the course of the campaign period.

It added that individual candidates at the Parliamentary elections have spent nearly Rs. 80 million each since campaigning began and at the last Presidential election, candidates spent Rs. 1,897.3 million. When the total amount is divided by the reproduction cost of a public representative, close to Rs. 80 million has been spent. The cost could have been justified if those elected had been the most suitable and qualified. However, this is not the case at present.

Intense competition

According to the CMEV, over the past 16 years, the money spent per voter by a party or an individual candidate has increased from Rs. 67 to Rs. 523. Rs. 850 million was spent for the Parliamentary election of 2004, spending about Rs. 67 per voter. In 2010, this increased to Rs. 139 per voter. At the last Parliamentary election, the amount increased to Rs. 523 per voter. According to the CMEV, this increase is due to the number of candidates and the intense competition in every electoral district.

Government sources revealed that the latest provisions on the limit on campaign expenses would depend on several criteria. The land area of the district that the candidate is running for, the voter population and the kind of technology used by voters in a particular district are some of the factors that will be taken into consideration.

The new regulations are expected to uphold democracy to its true meaning, to send the most educated and suitable ones as people’s representatives instead of the most affluent and richest who could spent the most in campaigns. The culture is such that elected candidates are psychologically and morally bound to serve the voters who sponsored their campaign, rather than those who actually need assistance.

Indian example

Many countries, including India, have imposed rules and regulations to control election spending. All political parties contesting in Lok Sabha and Assembly elections (recognised National and Regional parties and unrecognised regional parties) are required to maintain the total funds collected during the election period (from the date of announcements of elections to the date of completion of elections) in cash, cheque and in kind.

Similarly, they are also required to maintain the total expenditure incurred in cash and cheque during the same election period apart from the various heads under which the funds were spent. These heads include publicity, travel, on candidates and other expenses.

The contesting political parties are required to file their expenditure statements to the Election Commission of India in the format specified by the Commission within 75 days of Assembly elections and 90 days of Lok Sabha elections. The Commission, thereafter, makes these statements available in the public domain for the perusal and scrutiny of public. Candidates must mandatorily file a true account of election expenses with the Election Commission. An incorrect account, or expenditure beyond the ceiling, can attract disqualification for up to three years. However, Indian media suggests that there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to say that many candidates spend much more than the ceiling and instances where it is conveniently ignored.

Taking lessons from India, Sri Lanka should vie to uphold true democracy by having free, fair and transparent elections, closing any loophole for candidates to breach the system.