The financing of political campaigns without accountability can lead to corruption and it often does. This is the reason why there are campaign finance laws. In many countries, these laws are extensive and are enforced. Several election cycles ago in Guyana the issue of the reform of campaign finance laws was raised by Mr. Christopher Ram. He got nowhere for his pains but has doggedly stayed on course. Others have since weighed in on the issue, including Transparency International Guyana and David Hinds of the WPA. At one time the AFC promised campaign finance reform but that party appears not to have been able to persuade its senior coalition partner, APNU, to support such a project. Latterly, the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo, has made some serious, supportive comments on campaign finance reform. But there are still issues as to whether our political culture will sustain it.
At the basic level, there are too fundamental objectives of campaign finance reform, namely, to know who makes the contribution and to limit the amount of the contribution. These ensure, firstly, that the public would know the identity of the contributor and, secondly, the size of the contribution is not large enough to purchase influence. It is believed that public knowledge of these matters would tend to limit the potential for corruption. It is routine in Guyana, and many other Caribbean countries, that those who make significant contributions to losing parties suffer discrimination or are fearful that they would do so. Political discrimination is rife in Guyana and is frequently on public display for all to see. Therefore, it is believed that if there is a requirement for disclosure of names, contributions will dry up. If the amounts which can be contributed are limited, it is certain that political parties would not be able to raise enough funds to contest elections. These are the essential reasons why our major political parties have not been keen on campaign finance reform.
But the drive for election campaign reform did not arise by accident. It was as a result of the growing reach of civil society and the increasing focus on corruption in the society. Campaign finance and support for political parties by way of donations are believed to be major openings for the corruption of the political process. Currently and in the past, it is widely believed that those who make significant contributions are generously rewarded with contracts and other kinds of benefits. It doesn’t stop there. It is also believed that the beneficiaries of contracts can produce goods or works far below the contracted quality and no sanctions would be applied. Further, once corruption starts at the top, the managers below who are charged with ensuring compliance with the contract, are seen as being available to be ‘influenced.’ These are the developments which energised the campaign for reform.
With the best will in the world, unless the approach of the main political parties to corruption, in general, dramatically changes, no progress on this issue will be made. I had cause a few weeks ago to remark that there is nothing about corruption in the programmes of the main parties. Mr. Bharrat Jagdeo subsequently said that the PPP will restore the effectiveness of the Integrity Commission and the Procurement Commission both of which, he alleged, have been undermined by the government. This is not the level of commitment that I was looking for. The groundwork for campaign finance reform requires that there be a determination to root out corruption, starting with government members and other public officials, and that there are major successes in institutionalizing transparency and accountability. Only in these circumstances, where the elimination of corruption is a main policy objective, will the demands for campaign finance reform meet with success. That does not mean that the demands should cease or await a more propitious time. The campaign for laws against corruption in all its forms, including campaign finance, must be continued relentlessly.
Guyana’s laws in relation to campaign finance, contained in the Representation of the People Act, focus on expenditure of funds. The controlling of expenditures is a vital component of campaign finance regulation because it is designed to prevent bribery and corruption and the buying of votes. Even so, these laws, though updated, were inherited from colonial times and are hardly adequate for the purpose. But the entire area of receipt of funds by political parties is subject to no legal controls. And it is this critical area where legislation is needed.
The United States has extensive campaign finance laws. The Federal Election Campaign Act of 1971, amended in 1974, limits contributions by individuals, expenditures by candidates and expenditures by citizens promoting the views of candidates. However, some limits were struck down as unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court. Another effort of reform was made by the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 which prohibited unregulated contributions to political parties and limited the use of corporate and union money to promote advertisements close to elections. These limitations on corporate funds were also held to be unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court.
Guyana needs campaign finance reform as an important aspect of its drive to eliminate corruption in public life.