Election campaign financing needs more public debate

04/05/2012 12:11

A Papua New Guinean looks at the candidates list before voting in the 2007 polls.


By Henry Lubang 

An important but often unnoticed issue during Papua New Guinea’s national elections is campaign financing (CF).

It is an emerging area of study in PNG that is yet to be explored. It is an essential component in the tenets of democracy and the over-arching goals of transparency, accountability and good governance. Nevertheless it is a complex subject which is worth bringing to the public arena for discussion and debate

CF involves the generation and application of material resources to electoral campaigns. It entails any financial transactions that political parties and candidates make in order to publicize their candidacy.  In essence, this is an issue of ‘improving one’s own position’ in the political competition for public office.  Money then becomes a leveraging agent. Cash and kind are inextricably linked to the desired result of electoral victory, which then is linked ultimately to instituting a government.  

The underlying argument is that CF has to be transparent, especially in relation to where and how campaign materials are solicited and how they are applied.  The level of transparency in the sourcing and application of CF not only generates public confidence but also bestows electoral integrity. Admittedly, the task of identifying sources of funding and the application of campaign funding is a mammoth and complicated task.  This is because CF in PNG allegedly involves both legal and illegal avenues.  Resources for it are often secured via shady avenues, consequently making it difficult to detect and monitor.

Complicating the issue even more is the notion of pork-barrel politics, which refers to public spending that is intended to benefit constituents of a politician in return for their political support.  With a tendency in PNG for voters to assess the success and effectiveness of MPs based on tangible developments and benefits on the ground, there is often a thin grey line between the implementation of projects as part of the government’s delivery process to the people, and projects that are associated with pork-barrel politics.  On the whole, pork-barrel politics impacts on the government machinery as well as the national government’s development budget.  Voters quite often do not see the difference and this pervasive ignorance then further reinforces the practice. 

The absence of scrutiny on where and how political parties and candidates source and apply campaign money will continue to have a negative impact on the integrity of PNG’s electoral system, if mitigations are not sought. Many political parties and candidates are induced to accumulate campaign material in order that they become successful through the electoral process.  Obviously, the accumulation of campaign material (legally or illegally) is influenced by many factors. One factor of course is the exorbitant campaign costs which includes material, media, transportation and a plethora of related expenses.  For some parties and candidates, there is the intent to buy votes. 

Serious issues with CF emerge when money is used to solicit votes in the form of bribery.  However, upon careful scrutiny this is a two-way street.  Candidates would see the need to engage in bribery if they feel threatened by rivals.  Sometimes, candidates would resort to bribery as a measure to counter acts of bribery that they believe rival candidates would have committed.  Apart from outright bribery, other acts to influence voter choices can be done too. From the other side, some voters have recognized the value of their ballots and have proceeded to enter into commercial arrangements with candidates to sell their votes.  Whatever the seriousness of these sinister activities, the line of reasoning is that financial transactions have and can still take place within the electioneering process. 

It is in this light that electoral victory of political parties and candidates are sometimes perceived by the public to be corrupt, and therefore give rise to accusations of corruption and illegal manipulation of voters during campaign periods.  Caught in the middle is the fact that CF is indispensable to the electioneering process and therefore – by extension – an important prerequisite for democratic and governance practices. 

It is not a question of ‘if’ campaign financing is blight in the elections but ‘how’ it can be guided and protected against abuse by self-serving and conniving individuals. The urgent challenge is that this matter warrants proper public debate and discussion so that the practices that are embodied in CF are understood. CF can then become a transparent issue when correct handling of political finance impacts a country's ability to effectively maintain free and fair elections, effective governance, democratic government and regulation of corruption.   

  • Henry Lubang is a research cadet under the Institutional Strengthening Pillar at the National Research Institute of PNG.