Financing political campaigns
By Philip C. Galanis
Elections are more often bought than won.
– U.S. Rep. Lee Hamilton
As the general election in The Bahamas approaches, there has been considerable discussion about the sources of political campaign finance. One of the local tabloids has suggested that the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) is being funded by “unsavory characters”. At one of the Free National Movement (FNM) rallies, the prime minister is quoted as saying: “The PLP has plenty money! And there is a reason they have plenty money. The money they’ve got, we don’t want! We’d rather be out than in if we have to use that kind of money! Our hands are clean!”
Therefore this week, we would like to Consider This... should we be concerned where political parties receive their campaign contributions?
Campaign finance refers to funds that are raised and spent to promote candidates and political parties in election contests. In modern democracies, such funds are not necessarily devoted exclusively to election campaigns. Political contributions are also used to finance issue campaigns in referenda, party activities and party organizations.
For the most part, however, in The Bahamas, political campaign finance is used to establish campaign headquarters at the constituency and national levels, to purchase party paraphernalia, including signage, pins, and flyers, to pay political consultants for polling and focus group activities, party manifestos, newspaper, radio and television commercials, constituency activities, travel to the Family Islands and for political rallies and concerts.
And, yes, political campaign finance is also used to purchase votes. Although this is illegal, vote buying has been a feature of our political culture long before the establishment of the first political party in 1953.
Reasons for giving
There are many reasons why persons contribute to political campaigns. The first and most obvious reason is that donors support the political positions, programs or personalities of one party over another and want to see that candidate and party win in order to implement those policies and programs. In many cases, the donor’s intentions are noble and sincere and contribute to the strengthening of the democratic process.
Another reason for making a political contribution to a particular candidate or a party is to ingratiate oneself to both, in case the candidate or his party wins the election. The donor then hopes to be able to obtain support for his personal, business or civic programs.
There is also wide public perception that some donors expect government favors in return, such as specific legislation being enacted or defeated, the awarding of significant government contracts or other benefits granted as a result of large campaign contributions; so some have come to equate campaign finance with political corruption and bribery.
So then, does it really matter who finances political campaigns in The Bahamas? The short answer is yes. If political parties expect to be taken seriously, significant contributors must be closely scrutinized in order to determine whether the acceptance of their contributions will adversely affect the voters’ perceptions. Let’s look at several examples.
Much has been made about lawyers who defend clients who are accused of criminal offenses. The suggestion is that if a candidate is to be taken seriously by the voter, he should not represent persons so accused. There is an even more pernicious suggestion that lawyers who do so are undesirable candidates for Parliament. We totally disagree.
We are a country that is governed by the rule of law, whose primary precept is that a person is presumed to be innocent until proven guilty. Therefore, there is absolutely nothing wrong with a candidate representing such persons, even in cases where the accused are awaiting an extradition hearing. Let us remember that there was no similar public outcry when Eugene Dupuch and Sir Orville Turnquest successfully represented Robert Vesco, the internationally renowned financial fugitive, when the United States sought his extradition. In fact, Sir Orville subsequently enjoyed an illustrious and distinguished career as a Cabinet minister and deputy prime minister and then ultimately as governor general of The Commonwealth of The Bahamas.
Even more has been made of candidates accepting donations from such individuals. Keeping in mind the innocent until proven guilty concept, we see nothing untoward about taking donations from such accused individuals, nor do we see anything inappropriate about accepting donations from individuals who have been acquitted of the charges against them. They were presumed innocent and proven to be innocent, therefore donations from such persons are just like those from people who have never had a brush with the law. Of course, if the contributor was actually convicted of an offense, then it would be imprudent for such contributions to be accepted. Far too often in this society we do not appreciate the difference.
A second example involves a completely legitimate, clinically-clean contributor who makes a substantial contribution with the clear understanding that, if elected, the winner would ensure that certain actions are taken or favors granted for the contributor’s benefit. Notwithstanding that contributor being above reproach, such an arrangement is equivalent to bribery and corruption.
Accordingly, the real test of the appropriateness of the contribution must be the legal standing as well as the intention of the contributor and an understanding of the motivation of such contributions.
Campaign finance laws
Most countries that rely on private donations to fund campaigns require extensive disclosure, including the name, employer and address of donors. This is intended to police undue donor influence, while preserving most of the benefits of private financing, including the right to make donations and to spend money to enhance political free speech, saving government the expense of funding campaigns and keeping government from funding partisan free speech, which some citizens would find odious.
Supporters of private financing systems believe that private financing fosters civic involvement, ensures that a diversity of views are heard, and prevents government from tilting the scales to favor those in power or with political influence. They also encourage enhanced transparency in the funding of candidates and the political parties.
There is no campaign finance legislation in The Bahamas and we submit that the time has come to consider changing this. We believe that the correct balance of political finance impacts a country’s ability to effectively maintain free and fair elections, effective governance, democratic government and the regulation of corruption.
Political campaign finance can affect various societal institutions. We fully recognize that money is necessary for democratic politics, and that candidates and political parties must have access to funds to play their part in the political process. Money is never an unproblematic part of the political system, and, therefore, regulation of this process is highly desirable.
We also believe that our political culture must be taken into account when devising strategies for controlling money in politics in Bahamian elections. Ultimately, the effective regulation and disclosure of political campaign finance can help to control the adverse effects of the role of money in politics, but only if well-conceived and implemented. Without those proper regulations, our democratic process is in danger, and the pirates might just have to be expelled once more.
•Philip C. Galanis is the managing partner of HLB Galanis & Co., Chartered Accountants, Forensic & Litigation Support Services. He served 15 years in Parliament. Please send your comments to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Mar 05, 2012