How much does money influence Sri Lankan elections?

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This research article analyses the role of money in shaping Sri Lankan politics. Money is a crucial component in an election. Money is a necessary component of any democracy: it enables political participation, campaigning and representation. However, if not effectively regulated, it can undermine the integrity of political processes and institutions and jeopardise the quality of democracy.

Thus, regulations related to the funding of political parties and election campaigns, commonly known as political finance, are a critical way to promote integrity, transparency and accountability in any democracy. Money enables a medium for political campaigning. However the role of money in politics requires regulation. This research article makes the central argument that there are no formalised election campaign spending laws or rules in Sri Lanka and the role of money in Sri Lankan politics needs to be reformed by introducing spending limits and caps on election campaign expenditure.

Developing the argument

To understand the de-facto position and the argument made in the introduction, one must first look at the laws, rules and regulations regulating election campaign financing in Sri Lanka. Sri Lanka is a signatory to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNAC) of 2003. This Convention compels State parties to consider the adoption of legislative measures in the funding of candidates and political parties. However, there is yet to be an Act or an Amendment or even a section under Sri Lankan statute law which addresses issues of campaign financing and the process and limits on political parties vis-a-vis funding political parties. The observation one must make is that a legal framework is needed. A comprehensive election campaign finance law is needed. Provisions in such a hypothetical law could include introducing a ceiling on campaign expenditure for both presidential campaigns. Thus far a concluding observation of the legal framework allows us to conclude that there are no restrictions that may be made to parties or candidates. This leads to the conclusion that election campaign finance laws in Sri Lanka are not sufficiently regulated.

Let us now analyse election campaign expenditure at the last Sri Lankan Presidential election. At the 2019 Sri Lankan presidential election an independent poll observer made several remarks. The first observation was that the two front-runners had spent over one billion Sri Lankan Rupees in their political campaigns in less than three weeks. The Center for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) has calculated that the three main contenders, from the Sri Lanka PodujanaPeramuna, New Democratic Front and National People’s Power have spent Rs 1.3 billion from 14 October to 5 November.

However, as Sri Lanka lacks clear election campaign laws, political parties are not required to lodge a statement of their precise expenditures with the Election Commission. Among the three main contenders, SLPP presidential candidate Rajapaksa’s election campaign is accountable for the biggest chunk of campaign related expenditures with Rs 784 million being spent up to 5 November , the CMEV report reveals. This is 59% of the total amount spent by five high spenders. The UNP led New Democratic Front candidate Sajith Premadasa has spent Rs 496 million (37%).

Let us develop our understanding of campaign finance better. Election campaign finance involves raising and spending of money intended to influence a political vote, such as the election of a candidate or a referendum. Political parties and candidates require money to publicise their electoral platforms and to pursue effective, strategic campaigns. Attempts to regulate campaign finance reflect the commonly held belief that uncontrolled political fund-raising and spending can undermine the integrity of the democratic process and erode the confidence of the electorate in political institutions. Campaign expenditures have grown in many countries since the turn of the 21st century.

The rising cost of elections is particularly evident in the United States, where a large part of fund-raising and spending involves not the candidates and their parties but political action committees (PACs), whose campaign activities fall under regulations less stringent than those imposed on political candidates. Data indicates that between 2000 and 2012 the estimated total spending for US presidential elections almost doubled, from $3.1 billion to $5.8 billion. This massive growth in campaign finance is not peculiar to the United States, however, it applies to all countries in which elections are held.

Campaign finance also raises fundamental ethical questions for a democratic country. Most often, debates about campaign finance revolve around the protection of freedom of expression and the prevention of corruption, two democratic principles that can enter into conflict with one another. On the one hand, jurists have often considered financial participation in a campaign (either through donation or spending) to be a form of political expression that must be constitutionally protected.

By regulating campaign fund-raising and spending, governments seek to avoid a situation whereby politicians use the power associated with their office to reward large contributors. Even in the absence of any actual quid pro quo, large contributions can arguably contradict the democratic principle of “one person, one vote,” since contributors gain a privileged method to express their political choice.

In addition to preventing outright corruption, campaign finance regulation thus seeks to limit the undue influence of money in politics. What represents undue influence is, however, itself a controversial issue. The objective of campaign finance regulation can also be approached from a different perspective—namely, that it can be used to empower the greatest number of citizens to voice their concerns and hopes in an election.

Conclusion

In conclusion, this research article restates the argument made in the introduction- that there is no concrete legal framework to regulate election campaign finance in Sri Lanka and there is a need for a complete formalisation of the role of money in politics in Sri Lanka. This argument was developed by international frameworks Sri Lanka is party to. To end our story it should be noted that a detailed, analytical look at the relationship between money and politics in Sri Lanka is needed by all academic as well as political actors and a discourse on this salient topic needs to be generated among the public and other stakeholders.

This research article was prepared by the One Text Initiative research unit. The One Text Initiative is an independent, non-partisan research institute. The website of OTI can be located at onetext.org and the team leader for this project can be contacted at [email protected]

By The One Text Initiative (OTI) research unit