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Time for cleaning up campaigns

Hundreds of Cambodian People’s Party supporters drive through the streets of Phnom Penh
Hundreds of Cambodian People’s Party supporters drive through the streets of Phnom Penh during the campaign period of the national elections in 2013. Sreng Meng Srun

Time for cleaning up campaigns

Year 2018. The Constitutional Council has dealt with all the contentious electoral disputes.

The National Election Committee (NEC) stands by its final results. Suppose no party has won a sufficient majority to form the government alone.

Suppose talks about a coalition government have borne no fruits as the biggest parties refuse to work together while the very few small parties that have won a seat or two for the first time only desire to focus on their parliamentary role.

The political climate, as often has been the case, doesn’t look very promising. Big businesses fear instability. And so on and so forth.

If the above scenario ever became true, much of it would owe to some hidden interventions from those who often do not play politics, at least not publicly: the big guys who have a lot of cash.

In all the previous elections, so much cash circulated with nobody accurately keeping track of those transactions.

Nobody can boast having knowledge of who has actually spent how much and for whom.

Although the Political Party Law requires each political party to maintain an official bank account to record campaign-related incomes and expenses, this banking tool doesn’t seem to have done the job that well when such law is not being enforced or without effective mechanism to enforce the law.

Some people might even wonder whether there were cases of money laundering under the disguise of financial contributions to parties in one way or another.

Just as the government has a legitimate right to know the sources of income of non-governmental organisations and associations, voters have an inherent right to know how political parties get monies to fund their expensive campaign.

If parties cannot come out clean with their monies, how could voters trust that their government can ever be clean?

In a multiparty system, even an appearance of corruption must be avoided.

Which is why, in a famous court decision Buckley v Valeo in 1976, the US Supreme Court made it clear that there must be limits on the size of contributions because such limits constitute “primary weapons against the reality or appearance of improper influence stemming from the dependence of candidates on large campaign contributions”, in other words, the limits on contributions guard against future corruption.

This court also upheld the constitutionality of the disclosure and recordkeeping requirements on all transactions.

These vital rules– limits on contributions and disclosure and recordkeeping requirements– are to integrity and transparency what food is to stomach.

If there is too much food, the stomach might burst. Likewise, when a person contributes so much money to a party, that person’s integrity might be compromised.

When anti-corruption has become the most important political agenda, a response from political parties to the citizens’ increasing demand, integrity and transparency now occupy a prominent place in Cambodian politics, particularly since all the important politicians have publicly promised to their voters that they are committed to reforms in about everything, beginning with the electoral process.

For if a person has spent a great sum of dollars for a candidate or a party, what would this candidate or party do in return when in power?

If a party cannot, upon disclosure, explain why a lot of contributions and expenses for the campaign were not recorded in the party’s official bank account, how can voters entrust that party with managing the national budget?

Certainly, one may realise it would be difficult to throw all the responsibilities at politicians alone.

Politicians anywhere in the world naturally crave for power and are ready to do almost anything.

Thus, voters themselves ought to take a more direct responsibility in demanding for a law that limits the amount of money or other type of property anyone or any entity or business can contribute to a candidate or a party and makes disclosure and recordkeeping compulsory.

The restriction on contributions would help to reduce the level of interdependency between politics and business, which often leads to corruption.

When no big dirty money is involved in politics, candidates and parties will have to upgrade their professionalism, play by the rules, and begin competing more and more on realistic ideas, policies and personal attributes.

The electoral campaign would be cleaner and the election results will tend to be more accurate.

When people with enormous cash have so much less influence on politics, they need not fear election results at all.

Why? Because once they have stopped paying big amount to political parties, they would indeed have paved the way for a safer political process in the first place.

Preap Kol is the executive director of Transparency International Cambodia.

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