TIGI urges campaign finance reform to fight corruption

Transparency Institute Guyana Inc. (TIGI) has sounded a call for the urgent reformulation of campaign financing legislation, saying that it will not only curb corruption but ensure that democracy reigns.

“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,” TIGI said in a January 26th, 2018 column published in the Stabroek News.

The column was based on the statements of Treasurer of the Alliance For Change (AFC) and Minister of Business Dominic Gaskin, Minister of State Joseph Harmon and the Leader of the Opposition Bharrat Jagdeo, who had spoken to this newspaper last September.

TIGI also used the comments of other key political figures to highlight the varying views given over the years and to stress the importance of the legislation.

According to TIGI, the enactment of reform legislation will give rise to new norms. “This includes norms for donating to political parties which is what political parties seem most concerned about,” the anti-corruption body said, while noting that whatever the consequences of this for political parties, the state and the citizens will benefit and democracy will be enhanced.

“This will however require political will and commitment to transparency and accountability. In fact, for the APNU+AFC coalition government and President [David] Granger himself, enactment of political financing legislation is a matter of accountability against their promises while campaigning and even subsequently,” TIGI posited.

The body also called upon the parliamentary opposition PPP/C to do more than continue the “lip service” that politicians have given over time on this 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,” TIGI wrote.

“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 [the] 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,” TIGI said before stating that these issues can be addressed to a large extent through enactment and enforcement of political financing legislation.

The Carter Center, following the 2015 general elections, had recommended that campaign financing legislation be updated and strengthened but neither of the two governing coalition partners, A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and the AFC, have expressed any interest in taking action.

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

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

Gaskin had 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,” he had told Stabroek News. He had admitted that his party had not engaged APNU on the matter nor had it taken a position on it.

Asked if he doesn’t believe that the AFC should push for the commencement of discussions given the Carter Center’s recommendation, Gaskin had 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.”

Harmon, the APNU General Secretary, had 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.” He could not say whether this was a priority issue for government and when consultations would start.

Jagdeo, meanwhile was adamant that the PPP/C 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 had said before placing his support for amendments to existing legislation on record.

‘Glaring impediment’

TIGI, in its column, said that 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 donating to politicians and political parties in order to gain state favours (contracts, concessions, appointments, diplomatic status etc.) and influence the agenda of the state, and to access state sanctioned perks etc. Such practices, the anti-corruption body said, can involve local or foreign entities and it added that 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).”

It was pointed out that in cases where 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.”

TIGI stressed that the lack of political financing legislation in Guyana is a “glaring impediment to addressing corruption in government.” It was pointed out that the now deceased former AFC Vice-Chair Sheila Holder was outspoken about the issue and had also moved a motion in Parliament in 2011 to implement political financing legislation to place focus on the use of state resources for campaigning. With regards to the motion, it was recalled that 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 also pointed out numerous cases where politicians have spoken about the need for this type of legislation but stopped short of ensuring the matter was addressed.

“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,” it wrote.

It reminded that 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… However, an October 17, 2016 report on information from the Attorney General …indicated that political financing was not on the legislative agenda in that year thereby contradicting Minister (David) Patterson’s (General Secretary of the AFC) prior indication and shrouding the President’s commitment in doubt,” it was stated. TIGI added that Harmon’s more recent avoidance of the question of priority and 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”  appear to signal further postponement of such laws by the government.

TIGI said that in the past politicians on both sides of the House had spoken of the issue as though it lacked importance. It was pointed out that Jagdeo, while holding presidential office, had pronounced on the matter, stating that he was supportive of 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,” TIGI said.

According to TIGI, 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, they should 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,” TIGI said.

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