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Campaign funding fallacies

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Cambodian People’s Party supporters campaign ahead of nation-wide commune elections earlier this year. Photograph: Heng Chivoan/Phnom Penh Post

Dear Editor,

Four Cambodian NGOs placed an advertisement in The Phnom Penh Post last week headed: “Statement to Appeal for Establishment of a Campaign Finance Law in Cambodia”.

The advertisement went on for a whole page, asserting that such a law would make elections more “fair”, but didn’t manage to state what provisions are wanted in it.

After some internet searching, I eventually found sources that described at least four different goals of this campaign: “a ceiling on political party campaign spending”; “equal campaign spending”; public disclosure of party and campaign finances; and public funding of campaigns.

One of these sources was the website of the International Foundation for Electoral Systems. It carried an interview with the IFES “chief of party in Cambodia” about the June commune elections, at the end of which readers were told that in Cambodia, a “non-governmental organisation, Working Group on Political Finance, was created with technical and financial support from IFES to advocate for campaign finance reform . . .”

Everyone knows what “financial support” means. “Technical support”, in a context like this, is usually equivalent to “political advice” or “instructions”. It therefore seems worthwhile looking into what IFES is.

On its website, IFES modestly describes itself as “the global leader in democracy promotion”.

Its funders include the US State Department, the US Department of Education and US AID. In short, IFES appears to be a tool for promoting the US government’s idea of “democracy” in other countries.

Concerning democracy, Koul Panha, the executive director of Comfrel — one of the organisations sponsoring the August 27 advertisement — was interviewed by The Phnom Penh Post on August 14 about the proposed campaign finance law.

He is quoted as criticising: “Even though the National Assembly is the most powerful government institution, the CPP controls it.”

The CPP controls the National Assembly because it won a substantial majority in the general election. If Comfrel believes control of the legislature should be decided in some other fashion, why would it matter whether elections were free and fair?

As for the different provisions suggested for a campaign finance law:

• Public funding of political campaigns doesn’t seem a high priority when the government is short of funds for many development projects. And in countries where public funding exists, it usually discriminates against small parties rather than making things fairer for them.

• A ceiling on campaign spending would not be very meaningful. Where they exist, such limits mainly affect media advertising.

In Cambodia, campaigning depends much more on candidates visiting villages and local party supporters talking to their neighbours. Putting a cost on, and limiting, this sort of campaigning would be impossible.

• Equal spending could not be implemented unless there was a ridiculously low ceiling or unless public (or foreign?) funding was provided to smaller parties.

Further, such a requirement would discriminate against members of larger parties. If party A had two million members and party B had one million, A’s members, on average, would be allowed to spend only half as much as B’s members to support their party’s campaign.

• Public disclosure of campaign spending might be useful in that access to more information generally gives the public a better chance of deciding issues wisely, but it’s easy to think of other areas where disclosure would be a higher priority — not to mention the social, economic and developmental issues the National Assembly needs to consider.

The present campaign arrangements, in which all parties are given equal broadcast time on state electronic media, probably does more to equalise conditions for parties than any of the proposed measures for a campaign finance law.

But if the four NGOs (and, their advertisement says, “most parties that have representation in the National Assembly”) are determined to demand a campaign finance law, I would suggest that they include at least one more provision: a ban on direct or indirect funding of political parties or campaigns by foreigners.

There is a law to that effect in the United States, so IFES should be able to give them technical support on how to word that provision.

Allen Myers
Phnom Penh
Send letters to: newsroom@phnompenhpost.com
The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.

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