Towards a new election culture | Daily News

Towards a new election culture

The long-awaited law to limit election campaign funding is to become a reality at last. Cabinet approval was received on Monday for the enactment of the Campaign Finance Bill that will bind all candidates contesting elections, of whatever variety, for their campaign spending to be done under the strict supervision of the National Elections Commission (NEC).

In fact, the Amendment to the present elections law to restrict campaign funding was formulated in 2016 and was awaiting approval of the Attorney General, which has been finally obtained. Accordingly, the Draft Bill will be gazetted following which it will be presented to Parliament.

Once the Bill becomes law, all candidates shall bear responsibility for funding his/her election campaign. In addition he/she will also have to disclose the source(s) of such funding. A ceiling will also be placed on the amount spent on a single electorate while the candidates will also be required to open a Special Elections Account (SEA) which will be the only source from which candidates can withdraw funds for their campaign funding.

The new law is a revolutionary step and will go a long way in changing the present election culture which is reeking of corruption. According to the Executive Director of Democratic Reforms and Elections Research Centre Manjula Ramanayake, the new law will put a halt to candidates getting elected to Parliament based purely on their money power. It will also put an end to candidates getting elected to Parliament on behalf of businessmen and racketeers so that only the latter's interests are served once the candidates win after receiving such backing and not those of the public. It would also open the doors for young educated candidates lacking financial resources to enter Parliament.

But how far it will be practical to control campaign financing is arguable. True, the funding restrictions will prevent candidates from distributing largesse to voters as election bribes, for all spending will now be supervised by the NEC. But what can stop spending done outside the SEA by well-wishers and businessmen on the sly on behalf of a candidate? In any case, the NEC does not have sufficient manpower to go into every nook and corner to ascertain how funds are spent during campaigning.

The issue will be further complicated during a Presidential Election campaign where the stakes are very high and funds are bound to pour in from all directions in support of the front runners. How will a candidate in a Presidential race be expected to operate on a single SEA? How high will the ceiling be on campaign spending at a Presidential Election? How could the funding ceiling imposed on a single electorate be gauged at a Presidential Election when there are 160 plus Electorates to cover?

We know how vast sums are raised from various sources running into billions of dollars by candidates even in US Presidential Elections despite restrictions placed on campaign funding. On the other hand, the NEC's task would be much easier in monitoring the candidates’ funding in a General Election (GE) where the campaign is strictly localized unlike in a Presidential Election and the candidates can be closely monitored.

There will be ways or means by which campaign funding limits could be circumvented. One such way is getting a proxy candidate at a GE to spend from his own SEA to promote a main candidate. In fact, a similar practice is already in vogue where so-called independent candidates use their free air time to promote candidates from mainstream political parties. The NEC should focus on this possibility.

Other areas too should receive the scrutiny of the NEC to ensure a level playing field during an election campaign. There was an instance of a wealthy candidate taking voters in his electorate on picnics and pilgrimages during the election campaign. If the rationale of the new law is to ensure a level playing field, all such shenanigans should receive the attention of the NEC. One good thing that would emerge as a result of the new law will be the diminished number of election posters defacing walls and decorations using polythene contributing to environment pollution.

With the purse strings held by the NEC, candidates will not be able to splash money as they please on posters. Vehicle use too should be restricted during an election campaign so that this would not give an unfair advantage to wealthy candidates, particularly under the Proportional Representation (PR) system that requires candidates to cover an entire Electoral District.

Perhaps the biggest positive in the new Campaign Finance Law will be the elimination of black money thrown around freely in election campaigns by vested interests expecting quid pro quo from candidates whose campaigns they funded. With candidates requiring to name all their funding sources, this, at least on the face of it, will not be possible.

However, efforts could be made to negate these efforts. It will be the NEC’s task to plug all loopholes and ensure a level playing field leading to a new election culture in this country, dethroning money power that ruled the roost all these years.


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