Where is the money behind our politicians from?

Election campaigns tend to be one of the driving forces behind corrupt practices even after candidates are elected.

Therefore, with a monumentally significant presidential election just over a month away, conversations around the issue of campaign finance and corruption in public office should be gathering steam.

Running a campaign in Sri Lanka is a costly affair; an aspiring candidate needs to connect with people on a grassroots level as well as a policy level. This exercise requires a great deal of manpower, posters, social media engagement, travel, and lots of “buth packets” – none of which come cheap. As a result, adequate campaign finance is a prerequisite for a successful election bid.

The problem lies in the issue of who is providing this finance and whether there are strings attached. If money is being funnelled into an election campaign on the understanding that once the candidate is in power, the financier will be afforded special privileges and benefits, this is when citizens need to be concerned.

Of course, campaign finance is not the root of all evil in the world of corruption. Regulating campaign financing would not address blatant theft within the government, nepotism, irregular procurement procedures, and the handing out of government jobs to political supporters. However, it is a step in the right direction and, interestingly, is something that Sri Lankan law has addressed in the past.

Regulating campaign finance

The Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Order in Council of 1946 specifies that a candidate would have to appoint an agent known as the “election agent”. This agent is responsible for the accounting and reporting of all expenses spent on elections, along with a declaration by the candidate. These financial reports have to be submitted within 31 days of the result of the election being published in the gazette (1). If it is not conveyed within the stipulated time period, the candidate would not be given the chance to sit or vote as a member in the House of Representatives, until such a conveyance is made (2).

However, this was repealed by the Parliamentary Elections Act No. 1 of 1981 (3). Under this law, the sources of campaign financing would have to be tracked and reported. The fact that non-compliance would prohibit an individual from taking their seat in Parliament provides a strong and effective incentive for candidates to ensure that reporting is completed in the stipulated time period. While this law did not provide caps on spending during campaigns, making these declarations open to the public would provide another avenue through which elected officials could be held accountable.

However, this accountability mechanism is no longer in place. Under the Parliamentary Elections Act No. 1 of 1981, the entire section on reporting campaign finance was repealed, thus removing this avenue of accountability.

Bringing regulations back

The Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC) has detailed the National Action Plan 2019-2023 (4), aimed at tackling corruption in its various forms. The section on policy suggestions for proposed legislative amendments is all the more relevant in the context of elections. While the amendments proposed to the Bribery and Corruption Act aim to strengthen the powers of CIABOC and increase their ability to tackle corruption across the board, the proposals on campaign finance and asset declarations aim to curb opportunities for corruption in public office.

The proposed legislative framework for campaign finance puts in restrictions and accountability mechanisms on the finances of candidates. This ensures that when an individual comes into office, they do not bring with them the strings and influence of external parties, and are free to prioritise the needs and requirements of their electorate.

While the suggestions do include a cap on campaign financing, the amendments which prevent conflicts of interest and introduce accountability mechanisms may be more practical to enforce.

Restrictions on donations extend to donations made by government departments, companies registered under the Companies Act in which the government owns shares, donations from foreign governments, and organisations registered outside Sri Lanka. The proposed reform also includes a section on accounting and auditing of campaign finances,that does not confine to a certified internal auditor making this a prerequisite for an individual to come into power and acting as an accountability mechanism.

Beyond campaign financing

Through the proposed amendments to the Declaration of Assets and Liabilities Law, the checks on financing of elected officials continue once they enter office, expanding the scope of the law to encompass the President, private staff of elected officials, provincial council members, and members of local government authorities, to mention a few. The amendments specify that officials would have to submit asset declarations at the point of their initial appointment on a yearly basis while they hold office, at the point of retirement, and for two years post-retirement.

Additionally, asset declarations of the elected official’s spouse, dependent children, and other persons who live with the elected official or have similar ties are also required.

Tackling corruption is a mammoth task, but these reforms could form the backbone of a culture where citizens hold their representatives responsible and demand increased transparency and accountability.

(Aneetha Warusavitarana is a Research Analyst at the Advocata Institute. Her research focuses on public policy and governance. She can be contacted at aneetha@advocata.org or @AneethaW on Twitter. Thiloka Yapa is a Research Intern at the Advocata Institute. Her research focuses on public policy, the Sri Lankan economy, economic freedom, and small and micro enterprises. She can be contacted at thilokaoshadi@gmail.com or @thiloka_yapa on Twitter.

Advocata is an independent policy think tank based in Colombo, Sri Lanka. They conduct research, provide commentary, and hold events to promote sound policy ideas compatible with a free society in Sri Lanka. The opinions expressed are the authors’ own views. They may not necessarily reflect the views of the Advocata Institute, its Board of Directors, its research fellows, or its advisors)

(1) Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Order in Council, 1946, Section 70(1)

(2) Ceylon (Parliamentary Elections) Order in Council, 1946, Section 70(3)

(3) Parliamentary Elections Act, No 1 of 1981, Section 130

(4) Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, Policy Suggestions for Proposed legislative amendments, 4, Sri Lanka: Commission to Investigate Allegations of Bribery and Corruption, 2019,https://www.ciaboc.gov.lk/media/attachments/2019/03/16/4-legal-eng.pdf (accessed October 9)

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