A positive development | Daily News

A positive development

The passage of the Election Expenditure Bill in Parliament on Thursday vesting the Elections Commission with the powers to monitor all campaign expenditure of candidates contesting future elections will now ensure a level playing field in election contests, to a great degree. The Bill was passed with a majority of 61 votes with the Samagi Jana Balavegaya and other Opposition parties opposing the Bill. SJB speakers, while stating that they were not against the Bill in principle, nevertheless saw in this a ploy by the Government to postpone the Local Government Elections, despite the assurance by Justice and Constitutional Affairs Minister Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe, PC that the passage of the Bill will not affect the LG poll.

Be that as it may, there are both positive features as well as drawbacks as to the implementation of the Elections Expenditure Law. There certainly is going to be practical issues that will confront the Commission. While serving to rein in splurging by candidates with the necessary financial means during the election campaigns, the question arises as to how the Commission is going to monitor this spending where thousands of candidates are involved (the last LG elections elected 8,000 candidates). Has the Commission got the necessary staff for this? Besides, spending is not confined only during the period of campaigning but also on election day itself. Usually it is on election day that candidates bribe voters both in cash and kind. With the Election Commission extremely busy on election day, can such probes be conducted with any degree of effectiveness?

Also, how, pray, is the Election Commission going to draw up the formula of campaign spending? There certainly is going to be different levels of expenditure, depending on the locality of the electorates or Local Government institutions. For instance, a candidate contesting for an election to the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC) will of necessity have to spend more than, say a candidate who is in the fray in Beliatta or Horowpothana. The Commission has to sort out this matter carefully if it is to avoid allegations of unfair play? There certainly cannot be uniformity in the limits imposed.

Besides, with the massive depreciation of the rupee, it will be difficult for the Commission to impose limits on campaign spending. Here too expenses of candidates at elections in the cities such as Colombo and Kandy are going to be much more higher than in the rural hinterland where the needs and wants of voters are far less.

One has also to factor in the scenarios where the spending is done by proxies acting on behalf of candidates. Even at present, there are ‘ghost spenders’ who virtually take charge of election campaigns on behalf of candidates who even hire popular singers and artistes to perform on political stages thus giving their candidate an edge over his/her rivals. If the whole exercise of the Election Expenditure Law is to ensure a level playing field, how is the Commission going to deal with such a scenario. Can the Commission stop third party funding of election campaigns?

Will third parties be allowed to financially support candidates under the new law? Certainly, under the Proportional Representation (PR) voting system it will be impossible for a candidate, particularly someone without the necessary financial means, to cover, not just an electorate, but an entire district, without a third party funding. Such candidates are certainly going to be handicapped in carrying their message to the whole district once the new law limiting election spending comes into effect. A careful study should be done by the Commission on the financial status of candidates before deciding on limiting spending. Those with meagre means, particularly candidates in the rural areas, should be permitted to enlist support of third parties, of course subjected to the limits.

Of course, a level playing field cannot be ensured by only limiting campaign funding of candidates. Election bribes can come in various forms. There was an instance in a past election where a candidate took voters on picnics and pilgrimages, during the campaign period. Needless to say, he was returned by the voters with a thumping majority. His rivals with lesser means could not match his financial prowess to take voters on such trips and suffered. Can the Commission intervene to halt such jiggery-pokery under the Election Expenditure Law? There is more than one way to skin a cat and Lankan politicians are past masters at sleight of hand methods.

Be that as it may, the introduction of the new law to limit election spending by candidates is a positive step which would make future elections at least less one sided as is the case now where wealthy candidates always prevailed over their less prosperous rivals. The law would also now make decent individuals of good breeding and social standing, the educated, intelligent and even professionals think about throwing their hat into the ring. All this time such folk obviously kept away due to the unequal competition in the race. They could now have a decent chance of competing on equal terms and making it to Parliament, ensuring a quality legislature.

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