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Election Financing again

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On August 16, SEARCHLIGHT carried a story on its front page about the deposit of EC$1.35 million in the bank account of a lawyer with connections to the Opposition New Democratic Party (NDP) and the transfer of that money to the party. Opposition Leader Arnhim Eustace later confirmed the authenticity of the story, denying any wrongdoing and explaining that the money was for the NDP’s election campaign of 2015.

This is the second such known occasion that a million dollar sum of money has been deposited in a local bank­, purportedly for the use of political parties and/or the Government. The NDP had itself questioned the ruling Unity Labour Party (ULP) about a similar deposit at another local bank some time ago.{{more}}

What is sad about both incidents is that rather than the serious issues that should be raised about substantial donations to parties or governments for electoral purposes, both parties have instead engaged in politicking on the issue, side-stepping the fundamental issue of campaign financing itself.

Thus, Mr Eustace engaged in a counter-attack on the Government, raising matters like the alleged sale of US dollars on the black market and other issues which he said ought to be investigated. There may or may not be merit in these allegations, but one cannot overlook or evade the vital issue of campaign financing, which all the major parties in the region have been doing, all too conveniently.

Just this week a major story broke in Jamaica about the improper use by government officials of campaign contributions from the private sector to the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP) when it was in office. The treasurer of that party is quoted in the Jamaica Observer as charging that there was competition between the PNP and senior party officials who held government posts, in soliciting contributions from the private sector. Worryingly, he disclosed that many of the contributions so solicited were for “the sole benefit of personal campaigns”; that “significant amounts” were collected from the private sector; and that “only a few” of those who collected money accounted in full.

That may be an extreme case of things getting out of hand, but it underscores the need for proper scrutiny and regulation of campaign financing. That is the root of what we call the “payback” system, where firms and individuals who make substantial contributions are rewarded, while others face discrimination. It leads to those who can afford being able to influence governmental policies and actions, and, in so doing, the democratic process is undermined.

Countries big and small, wealthy and poor, have been struggling with this contradiction, trying to use legislation to curb this erosion of democracy and the power of the wealthy. Even in the United States of America, the matter reached the Supreme Court, though that Court sided with the right of the wealthy to lavish contributions on the party or candidates of their choice.

The Organization of American States has recognized the gravity of the situation. It has held seminars on campaign financing to which both the ULP and NDP were invited. It has even drafted model legislation for consideration, adaptation and adoption by Parliaments. But our politicians are refusing to take the bait. They engage us in sideshows, while leaving the fundamentals untouched, because it is in their narrow interests to solicit private funding to finance wasteful campaigns.

This is a matter which our citizens need to take up strongly if we are to make the power of the ballot count over the power of money. Let us place campaign financing and integrity legislation high on the public agenda.

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