Large campaign finance donations: at the expense of political equality?
The cost of political campaigning is escalating in democracies all over the world which means that political parties are in greater need of campaign funds. The price tag for the 2012 US elections ended up at a dizzying $US 6 billion. In Kenya the cost of the presidential race for the election in 2013 is estimated to hit US $130 million, double to the amount of the previous 2007 election.
Why is this happening? In many countries the trend is related to the growing significance of media campaigning and the use of political broadcasting, which in many countries gobbles up most of the campaign expenditure. In addition, public funds do not cover the costs that parties or candidates think they need to be competitive. This often results in parties looking for financial support from other areas – even going as far as accepting money from illicit or criminal sources – though more often it means that parties are turning to just a few donors with ‘big money’.
International IDEA’s research shows that wealthy donors and corporations often see political contributions as an astute business investment. They are prepared to make contributions to the political party that is most likely to win the election, or in some cases, to donate to more than one party across the political spectrum to secure ‘good will’ regardless of whom ends up in government. Contributions like this pose issues of accountability, since the receiving parties or candidates may feel obliged to represent both their constituents and also their ‘sponsors’.
In the USA, the Supreme Court has for some time protected large corporate or union donations to political parties, ruling that they are acts of liberty and therefore protected under the US constitution on the grounds of freedom of expression.
The US is not alone when it comes to allowing money to talk. More than half of the countries in the world, for different reasons, do not place limits on the amount that can be given to political parties or candidates during election campaigns (read more about this in International IDEA’s political finance database). With the increasing role that money plays in politics, there is a growing risk that particular interests or individuals have a disproportionate influence over the political process. This in turn can have a distorting effect on the democratic principle of equality and ‘one person, one vote’.
For the majority of voters, participation in the political process is not based on their ability to make large financial contributions. The key issue then is how to restore equality in the political system.
Across the globe in countries as diverse as Malawi, Mongolia and Sweden there is an ongoing debate about the need to cap large donations and to put in place other transparency measures so voters are aware of which interests are behind the party or candidate that they intend to vote for. In Kenya there is support for a Campaign Finance Bill to put an end to candidates with the deepest pockets buying their way through the electoral process. Such a Bill is not only meant to limit the influence of special interests but also to level the playing field for political parties in terms of funding, and to curb corruption. Likewise debate is occurring in the US about how to limit the impact of money on the outcome of elections.
Policy makers must realize that unless they address the role of money in politics they might soon end up in a situation where voters decide that an election outcome is ‘illegitimate’ on account of money alone.
By Elin Falguera, Political Participation and Representation Programme