Mission: To stop the political money machine

By R B Bhattacharjee, The Edge

HE who holds the aces seldom asks for a change of hand, a wit once said. This surely applies to the actors whose well-being depends on the political status quo remaining as it is.

One example can be seen in the yawning gap between the thinking of reform-minded opinion leaders and representatives of the old order on the question of fixing the Malaysian political system.

The evidence was on display when two public officials spoke at a recent conference on political financing, reflecting how much they were at odds with the rest of the speakers, who all pointed to the need for a radical change in the way political affairs are conducted in the country.

The two senior officials, from the Election Commission (EC) and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), quite inadvertently hewed to the same line: that their authority was restricted by the electoral laws, which left them powerless to prevent the abuse of campaign financing.

In contrast, other speakers at the first-ever National Conference on Challenges for Institutional and Legislative Reforms in Political Financing in Malaysia, organised at end-November by Transparency International — Malaysia (TI-M), pressed for a complete overhaul of the system in order to cut out corruption at its roots.

There are two basic problems with political financing in the country, as Dr Mavis Puthucheary, a former academic and political analyst told the conference.

One is that the law limits the spending by the candidate and not of his/her party. Two is that there is no authority assigned with the responsibility for monitoring and enforcing the electoral expenses of candidates.

In addition to these and other legislative weaknesses, Dr Edmund Terence Gomez, professor of political economy at Universiti Malaya, identified several dangerous trends in the political environment.

First is the growing monetisation of politics, where large sums of private funding is seeping into the political arena. Second is the issue of unequal access, which allows those with greater capacity to obtain funds to ascend the political hierarchy and win seats in the elections.

Third is the worrying allegations of covert funding of parties and politicians and fourth, the emergence of money-based factionalism which is threatening the existence of parties and undermining public confidence in politicians.

Compounding the problem is the involvement of political parties in business, and their ownership of media organisations, Gomez said.

Such weighty issues surely require a major review of institutions and laws. This, in turn, can come about only when the larger society becomes sufficiently motivated to press for a change in the country’s governance.

In contrast to these stark analyses, EC deputy chairman Datuk Wan Ahmad Wan Omar emphasised the limitations placed on the authority by the Elections Commission Act.

Among other things, he held that it is not the EC’s responsibility to verify the accounts of previous campaign expenditures submitted by a candidate, but for his opponents to do so.

The MACC director of excellence and professionalism Abdul Wahab Abdul Aziz expressed similar reservations.

Although he won praises for sacrificing his leave to return from an outstation trip in order to speak at the conference, his stand, however, was truly revealing of the lack of political will to act against the unethical use of money in election campaigning.

Both of them are correct only in the letter of the law, but miserably off the mark in addressing the violation of the basic principles of ethical conduct and good governance, and in ensuring that the public interest is protected under their watch.

Certainly, there is little chance of change if a piecemeal approach is adopted to the problem. Only a holistic response, encompassing institutional and legislative reforms, and the promotion of fundamental liberties, including free access to information, can lead to real progress.

In this light, Transparency International’s project on political financing is aptly named Crinis, which is Latin for “ray of light”, because only with transparency can the shady goings-on in political funding be kept in check and not destroy the country’s institutional checks and balances.