Party campaigns: Where does their money come from?

Politicians spend on everything from posters to jalsas, and somehow we never know where or who is financing it.

Adnan Rasool April 08, 2012
Nearly all of us spend hours debating what our country needs, and almost every time we end up with the same list of priorities; education, eradication of corruption, job opportunities and other such basics.

While I do agree that we require the above mentioned things, I also think that there is something else that we need on an urgent basis in our political system and which no one seems to be talking about it; campaign finance reforms. Even though it is the giant elephant in the room, I find it surprising that I have never come across a single discussion on it.

For those of you who are not familiar with the idea of campaign finance, let me try and explain it in the simplest of terms.

Every politician and political party that runs for elections does so by running a campaign. It costs money to get elected to parliament or any office for that matter. Candidates often spend hundreds of millions of rupees during election campaigns to improve their chances of getting elected. Political parties spend cash on everything from posters to jalsas (rallies), and yet somehow during all this, the most important questions remain unanswered:

Where did the candidates and political parties  get this much money from? Was there an agenda that was attached to the money? Who financed their public meetings?

Common sense dictates that if money is donated to a political party or an individual candidate, there is something expected from them in return once they come into power. No one in their right mind throws away their money without expecting some kind of pay back; after all politics is not charity work.

This inherently means that even before our politicians get elected, they have agreed to look after the interests of different donors, where as the general public has no idea what they have signed up to support.

All over the world, campaign finance laws dictate that everybody who is contesting for elections needs to categorically spell out who is donating money and make public any agendas. This is necessary to protect the voters who get to see what leanings their candidates have based on the origin of their campaign contributions. In a country like Pakistan, campaign finance laws do exist but are often flaunted or simply ignored.

This is why parties that arrange massive rallies often report just thousands of rupees in their bank accounts and simply state that their donors paid for the gatherings. Technically, this is not correct.

If a political party is getting donations, they should have the decency to explicitly inform the public about the amount and its source. This way we will be assured that the people who are funding our political parties are tax-paying citizens, and not cheats.

Knowing the origin of party donations would also allow people to see the sort of association the party keeps. Are they being backed by established businessmen or the land mafia? All this would become clearer.

In short, we cannot deny the importance of campaign finance reforms. The law is already there and it’s a pretty decent legislation too. The reforms that we need include the following:

  • Before the elections take place, the candidates need to publicly list the persons and businesses financing them. The whole idea of declaring assets becomes useless when politicians are being financed by businessmen and other wealthy individuals. Sometimes, shady characters also turn out to be financiers of party candidates. Hence, it's a need now to list exactly who is paying what.

  • Political parties need to submit a detailed financial plan for all public meetings that have an audience of more than 2,000 people. In case these meetings are externally funded, names of individuals or organizations need to be listed along with party receipts  acknowledging donations. This detail would need to be made public, otherwise no permission would be granted for future party events. This way we would know how much a large gathering costs and who pays for it.

  • Donors of political parties and candidates that donate more than Rs50,000 need to be registered as official political donors.  This would help the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR) to collect taxes from such individuals come tax-collection season, because if a person can donate more than Rs50,000 to politics, they can surely pay taxes.

  • All political parties need to conduct an external audit on a yearly basis, by a firm chosen through a competitive bidding process. Once a firm is chosen, it would be responsible for carrying audits of all parties that have a seat in any assembly. This would ensure that accusations of bias do not come about.

  • Any party or candidate failing to follow the above mentioned guidelines should be barred from running for public office till they submit the required documentation.

Current laws ask for a listing of declared assets of the candidates, when we all clearly know that the money which got them to the assembly was not their personal fortune. The reforms mentioned above are simply the tip of the iceberg and are intended to start a proper discussion on this issue.

It's no surprise that all political parties are against campaign finance reforms, since a large number of their donors belong to the informal sector of the economy. While they harp about taxes and assets, our politicians know that the implementation of these reforms would seriously damage their financial resources.

It's about time we become logical and track the individuals who, despite operating in the informal sector, donate heavily to political parties. This way we can know their agendas and also drag them into the tax net.

In essence, we can kill two birds with one stone.

Read more by Adnan here, or follow him on Twitter @adnanrasool.
Adnan Rasool Currently the Deputy Executive Director Center for Enterprise, Trade and Development, Adnan is also a political analyst working mainly on electoral politics and political campaign management. He tweets at @adnanrasool
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necassarily reflect the views and policies of the Express Tribune.

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