Campaign financing reform not priority for gov’t, opposition

-Gaskin says required environment doesn’t exist

Dominic Gaskin

Despite a recent recommendation from the Carter Center that campaign financing legislation should be updated and strengthened, neither of the two governing coalition partners, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the Alliance for Change (AFC), seems to have any interest in taking action.

Both partners, however, say that the issue requires widespread discussions, although prior to entering office they had committed to formulating new campaign financing regulations.

Campaign financing laws that require disclosures of donors to parties during an election period and strict record keeping is seen as pivotal in fighting corruption in countries like Guyana.

Treasurer of the AFC and Minister of Business Dominic Gaskin recently described campaign financing as a complex issue and one which will always be shrouded in secrecy, given the environment of victimisation and fear that currently exists. “…It is a very important discussion for us to have and which I personally would love for us to have… at the same time, I don’t see the environment for this to be properly implemented in Guyana. So I think it will be farcical for us to embark on something that has good intentions when all of us know that things will continue to happen the way they have always done in the past,” Gaskin said.

He noted that the AFC has not engaged its coalition partner APNU on the matter nor has it taken a position on it.

Gaskin added that political parties in Guyana are traditionally funded through a number of channels, including membership subscriptions, fund raising events and contributions from businesses and individuals. He said that the latter funding channel makes the issue complicated because a lot of individuals and businesses are “very protective” and “very careful” as they don’t want to be publicly associated with politics or with political parties. “…And that needs to be taken into consideration also. So, until we have an environment where business people can openly contribute to political parties, I think we will have a difficulty with implementing any sort of campaign financing legislation. I think we first have to create an environment in which victimisation of political supporters does not take place and where our individuals and businesses are comfortable in declaring contributions to political parties without fear of recrimination or anything like that,” he explained.

Experts in the area of campaign financing have traditionally argued that the anonymity that business donors insist on is usually the cover for corrupt deals and influence peddling.

Gaskin said that a lot of countries that have campaign financing laws and regulations are at a different stage of development and can afford “these very high minded initiatives” to protect their democracies.

He reiterated that Guyana needs to get to the stage where businesses and individuals can openly support political parties, whether financially or in other ways, “without it having an impact on their businesses or lives or anything else that they are doing without any sort of fear of political victimisation or loss business.”

Asked if he doesn’t believe that the AFC should push for the commencement of discussions given the Carter Center’s recommendation, Gaskin said, “I don’t think necessarily that the Carter Center …the fact that something has been raised in that context, should be the rationale for it becoming a priority matter for the party but I do think, like I said, it is a discussion that should begin.”

In its final report on Guyana’s May 11, 2015 elections, the Carter Center recommended the overhauling and modernisation of campaign finance laws as it found that the country’s legal framework is particularly weak and contributes to inequalities between political parties. The legal framework puts in place ceilings for election expenditures and a simple requirement that declarations of electoral expenses must be submitted to the Guyana Elections Commission (Gecom) after the elections.

In the report, it was noted that in the 2015 elections, political parties and candidates were bound by spending limits laid down in the 1964 Representation of the People Act. The law limits spending by a candidate to GY$25,000 and by parties to an additional GY$50,000 per candidate.

While each of the main parties seemed able to command significant resources for their campaigns, the report pointed out that there appeared to be a weak distinction between the resources of the then ruling PPP/C and that of the state. It also said that the absence of public funding for political parties impaired the ability of smaller parties to compete.

As a result, it concluded that the gaps in the law on campaign finance create an uneven playing field. “Legislation should be strengthened to routinely require disclosure of contributions and expenditures. Consideration also should be given to establishing reasonable limits on donations and expenditures to ensure that the free choice of voters is not undermined or the democratic process distorted by disproportionate expenditures on behalf of any candidate or party,” the Center said.

The Center argued that amendment of the legislation is necessary to establish a more comprehensive regulatory framework for parties and candidates, requiring the “disclosure of sources of finance (not just in the context of elections) and also establishing a ceiling on donations.”

Not a problem

While noting that the AFC does not profess to have all the answers, Gaskin told the Sunday Stabroek that the party generally tends to support best practices when it comes to governance matters. He said that transparency in campaign financing is very important in the context of democracy working and is not something that should be ignored.

He, however, also questioned what is driving the interest and what exactly is the problem with campaign financing that needs correcting. “These are things that we need to know also because the magnitude of the problem is what really dictates the level of attention that it will get,” he said, adding that the problem with campaign financing in Guyana is that “nobody sees it as a problem. Nobody has identified a specific harm or maybe a specific instance where it is doing harm and that is probably why it is receiving as little attention as it is.”

Gaskin noted too that this is an issue which just a handful of people are really interested in and which no one else wants to address.

“Political parties also need to be careful about the positions that we may take on this matter because the lifeblood of any political party is, of course, attracting finances. Political parties have to be financially sustainable. It is not cheap to run a political party and, therefore, even with the best of intentions, if you make the sort of pronouncement that could cause potential supporters or donors to think twice before they give you donations, then you will be shooting yourself in the foot. So, while we welcome consultations, whether or not that conversation needs to start with the AFC, is the first thing we would need to decide or to address or whether it is a conversation that should take place outside of the political parties in the first instance,” he added.

National consultations

Meanwhile, APNU General Secretary and State Minister Joseph Harmon made it clear that campaign financing is governed by the law and therefore “any changes in the law will require some levels of consultations as we do, not just within the parties but outside of the parties, because it is not the parties [alone] that are affected. There are other persons who may come up to form a party and will be affected by this law itself.”

He stressed that such legislative changes require national consultation “to ensure that we can have a strong legislation in that regard.”

Harmon was unable to say whether this is a priority issue for government and when any consultations would start. “I can’t say that,” he said when both questions were asked. “We have a number of priorities. We have a lot of issues with constitutional reform…there are some bills and so on that are there in the select committee that will require …undivided attention once we get into parliament again,” he added.

He informed that when the National Assembly reconvenes next month, the president will lay out the legislative agenda for the next year. “In that presentation, you will see the direction which the government is going to take,” he said.

PPP prepared to support

Opposition leader Bharrat Jagdeo was adamant that the PPP is prepared to support government on this issue as it sees it as one that is important.

“The PPP is open to a lot of issues. We are open to discussing constitutional reform, all of the issues. The government promised campaign financing laws [and] we are open to engaging [government] on this issue too,” he told the Sunday Stabroek.

He stressed that if an amendment to the campaign financing legislation is proposed, the PPP will be supportive. Jagdeo said though that in order for this support to take effect, the party has to first be approached. “If we are approached, support will be given,” he added.

Less than $400 million (US$2 million) was spent by the AFC for the May 11, 2015 general and regional elections. It is unclear how much was spent by APNU and the PPP but given their larger support base, the figure could be much higher that the AFC’s.

Prior to the elections, the General Secretaries of both APNU and the AFC had promised that funding for their campaigns would be transparent and that their agreement caters for a complete audit of campaign funding to be made public by the first week in August, 2016. Both parties had worked out a formula which would see APNU being responsible for 60% of the financing for the campaign and AFC 40%.

Besides the Carter Center the issue of transparency in campaign financing has been raised numerous times in the past by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the Commonwealth.

Additionally, the issue of campaign financing reform has gotten some attention in Caricom members states within recent years. Earlier this year, the governments of St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Lucia signaled an interest in introducing campaign financing legislation. Following the Bahamas’ elections, OAS Ombudsman Sherry Tross stated that the island should consider introducing campaign financing regulation in order to guarantee a more level playing field and transparency in the electoral process.

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