On September 10, 2017, Stabroek News published an article containing remarks by Treasurer of the AFC and Minister of Business, Dominic Gaskin; the Minister of State, Joseph Harmon; and the Leader of the Opposition, Bharrat Jagdeo, on the matter of political (campaign) financing legislation. The article was a follow-up on recommendations made by the Carter Center in its report on the 2015 General Elections and it captured the essence of what appears to have effected perpetual postponement of political financing legislation in Guyana; self-preservation on the part of politicians and political parties.
Why Political Financing Laws?
Political financing laws are about protecting the state from corporate and other interests, ensuring that incumbents avoid corrupt use of state resources (including money) and ensuring access to resources for all recognised political parties among other issues. However, it is possible for such laws to address only a subset of these issues. Political financing laws usually provide mechanisms to facilitate transparency and accountability which allow citizens to detect instances of corrupt practices.
Corrupt practices that can become commonplace in the absence of political financing legislation include, entities donation to politicians and political parties in order to
- gain state favours (eg. contracts, concessions, appointments, diplomatic status etc.),
- influence the agenda of the state, and access state sanctioned perks etc.
These practices can involve local or foreign entities. For example, firms might obtain unjustifiable concessions on imports or benefit from unlawful or unnecessary single sourcing as reciprocation for donations to parties. Corrupt practices may also include incumbents dipping into the national treasury for campaign purposes and for essentially buying votes and may involve incumbents utilising other state resources (for example, buildings, vehicles etc.) for their campaigns and other partisan purposes (sometimes under the guise of executing official duties).
The development of the country can become deformed when policies are influenced by interests other than that of the citizenry. The voices of the people can become inconsequential since politicians are not really free to make changes in response to their constituents.
Whereas politicians in Guyana have asked for evidence of problems resulting from lack of political financing legislation, the evidence itself is protected by the absence of laws to compel disclosure coupled with non-cooperation of politicians and parties with requests for potentially relevant information such as lists of donors and amounts donated. Unless whistleblowers come forward, civil society, the media and other agencies are unlikely to be able to provide the evidence requested. Therefore, the calls for evidence seem to be part of a circular logic intended to frustrate and to ultimately maintain opacity around political financing.
Advocating for Political Financing
The paucity of political financing legislation in Guyana is a glaring impediment to addressing corruption in government. The former AFC Vice-Chair and former member of parliament, Sheila Holder, indicated that “It’s all about money and attached to that is the corrupt or illegitimate means of acquiring funds for the political process” (SN, September 9, 2009). She was addressing the way the government of the day (the PPP/C) was utilising state funds. The AFC, through Sheila Holder and while in opposition, had also moved a motion in Parliament to implement political financing legislation in 2011. The focus then was primarily on use of state resources for campaigning and the PPP/C parliamentarians voted to alter the wording and send it to a select committee which ultimately was the end of that motion.
TIGI has called over time for political financing legislation to be enacted. Such calls have been linked to the results of the Corruption Perception Index (See, KN, December 4, 2014; SN, March 5, 2015). It called for “campaign” financing legislation when it addressed Minister Harmon’s indication that appointments were made to “those who have helped us in the campaign and those who have the capacity to help us further” in respect of appointments of whom he referred to as “honorific” advisers. TIGI also indicated in February 2017, that the absence of campaign financing legislation is a salient issue to be addressed by the government. The necessity of political financing legislation was expressed by a panel that discussed several issues on March 31, 2017 at a forum organised by the Carter Center and which was held at the University of Guyana, and again by Christopher Ram, Nigel Hughes and Frederick Kissoon (KN, September 4, 2017) and by Dr. David Hinds (KN, October 22, 2017).
This foregoing account is not exhaustive and is clearly focused on the more recent calls, but it establishes that various individuals/organisations and even political parties (the AFC while it was in the opposition) have advocated for political financing legislation
Lip Service to the Need for Political Financing Legislation
Political parties and politicians have over time managed to convey recognition of the need for and value of political financing legislation while consistently avoiding responsibility for addressing the matter substantively.
Prior to the 2015 General Elections, the APNU+AFC had committed to enacting political financing legislation. In April 2016, President Granger of the APNU+AFC coalition reaffirmed his commitment and promised to enact political financing legislation before the 2020 general elections (Guyana Chronicle, April 9, 2016). However, an October 17, 2016 report on information from the Attorney General (see KN, Oct 17, 2016) indicated that political financing was not on the legislative agenda in that year thereby contradicting Minister Patterson’s (General Secretary of the AFC) prior indication and shrouding the President’s commitment in doubt. The Minister of State’s more recent avoidance of the question of whether or not political financing is a priority issue (see SN, September 10, 2017) and Minister Gaskin’s clear indication that issues such as political financing are “high-minded initiatives” which Guyana is not yet ready to pursue and furthermore that “nobody sees it as a problem” (see SN, September 10, 2017) appears to signal further postponement of such laws by the government.
These comments by Minister Gaskin’s are not unlike those made by the Chief Whip of the PNCR Lance Carberry as reported in the August 8, 2010 publication of Stabroek News. Carberry said then that “I don’t know that anyone has put their mind to that [campaign financing legislation]. We have more important things to worry about like the governance of this country. But it should be talked about and I will raise it with my colleagues” (SN August 8, 2010).
Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo also pronounced on the matter while he was president. An SN article published on October 25, 2010 conveys that the then President Jagdeo indicated that his administration supports the call for campaign financing reform though he cautioned that the model adopted should ensure a level playing field. The PPP/C, however, ultimately did not enact political financing laws in its two decades in the seat of government. This raises some doubt about its commitment to such legislation even though Mr. Jagdeo, the party’s leader, proclaimed recently that the PPP/C is prepared to support the government on the issue of enacting political financing laws (see SN, September 10, 2017).
Political Financing Laws: A Hostage of Corruption?
As exasperating as the August 2010 remarks by Mr. Carberry are, they are much more palatable than further pronouncements by Mr. Gaskin on the matter of political financing legislation. He is quoted as having said that
“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” (see SN, September 10, 2017).
Though these comments by the Minister may reflect what he considers pragmatism, they have little to do with securing the future of the country, but much to do with the account balances of political parties. Transparency International defines corruption as the abuse of entrusted power for private gain. If political parties are indeed avoiding the issue of political financing because of what they stand to lose in terms of corporate and other donations to their accounts, TIGI wishes to urge them to consider what this means. Political parties and politicians must remain cognisant that once they access the seat of government, they have become “officers” of the state and are obligated to govern in the interest of the state.
Parties in opposition that sit in parliament are also in service of the state which is a higher calling than their partisan interest. When party interest in what they can gain or lose determines either the supplying or withholding of state actions that would benefit the state, corruption is afoot.
The enactment of political financing legislation will give rise to new norms. This includes norms for donating to political parties which is what political parties seem most concerned about. Whatever the consequences of this for political parties, the state and the citizens will benefit and democracy will be enhanced. Political financing legislation should no longer be withheld from Guyana. The enactment of such laws will deal a significant blow to the scourge of corruption. This will however require political will and commitment to transparency and accountability. In fact, for the APNU-AFC coalition government and President Granger himself, enactment of political financing legislation is a matter of accountability against their promises while campaigning and even subsequently.
The parliamentary opposition, the PPP/C, is also called to do more than continue the lip service that politicians have given over time to the matter. From its position in the opposition, the PPP/C needs to become a champion of political financing legislation and not wait for proposals to endorse.
The end of 2017 marked yet another year in which no gains in relation to political financing were made. Guyanese are still unable to evaluate, with confidence, whose interests are driving state agenda and whether entities are inappropriately benefiting from their taxes in return for donations to political parties and politicians. Guyana remains exposed to untold risk including many forms of grand corruption and abuse of state resources by incumbents and it continues to benefit minimally from contributions of small political parties that are not financially viable on their own. These issues can all be addressed to a large extent through enactment and enforcement of political financing legislation.