The Case For A Comprehensive Law On Political Parties Funding Revisited

By: Wonderr K. Freeman, Attorney-at-Law/

WK Freeman, Attorney-at-Law

When the Supreme Court of Liberia upheld the law on the Code of Conduct for Public Officials, it prime focus was to determine its constitutionality, and in so doing lend credence to the issue of integrity in public service and to guard against the misuse of government resources. However, the ruling could,arguably, be interpreted as a leveling of the playing field in the local political arena.

The issue of political campaign finance is ever-present,even when not publicly and formally acknowledged. As long as there are elections, we are going to have to deal with the issue of campaign finance and political parties’ funding. So it makes sense to address the matter in a much more comprehensive fashion – possibly, by a legislative enactment to cover all the issues and nuances of how political parties are financed.

As the 2017 political season in Liberia advances, each passing day, there are more questions than answers as regards where our political parties’ funds are coming from.  For example, in early 2016, when the [Alex] Tyler brand was still riding high, former speaker Tyler alone, through his party (LPDP), was able to purchase a fleet of vehicles, seemingly one for each county, which vehicles are now at the disposal of George Weah’s CDC.

How was Alex Tyler, the man from Bomi, able to pull that off – i.e., almost single-handedly purchasing a fleet of at least fifteen (15) 4×4 double-cabin pickups, locally costing at least USD30k apiece? We are talking about sums in the neighborhood of USD400,000 – 500,000. (See the article: Liberia, loot for politics? Speaker’s political party showoff cars, by Samwah Fallah on www.allafrica.com and www.frontpageafricaonline.com)

In 2017, we have none other than our venerable VP, Joe Boakai, showing “manly strength”in the purchase of at least 22 similar double cabin 4×4 pickups. At similar rates of USD30K per vehicle, we are talking about funding to the tune of USD500,000 – USD600,000 (see also the article by William Q. Harmon and Gloria Tamba: Boakai Shows Ellen ‘Manly’ Strength/Purchases 22 vehicles for Unity Party on www.liberiaobserver.com).

The display was greeted with much fanfare and celebration at the headquarters of the ruling party (UP) and even a gracing of the occasion by none other than her Excellency, Madame President. But where did the money come from? And to what extent is this jackpotfinancing in compliance with our revised campaign finance law? What these examples show us is that without some comprehensive reform of our laws on political campaign finance, our elections are likely to be a financial no-hold-barred contest, in which the most brazen will steal the show. Elections are supposed to be free and fair.

However, where one party (with high-profile links) is able to purchase 15-25 vehicles on the spot, the issue of fairness comes into question.What kind of competition will it be, where one or two parties have all the money and the others have nothing? It’s not enough that elections be free; they must also be fair. That’s why the issue of public funding of parties and comprehensive electoral finance law must be revisited.

Speaking of laws on election finance, I’m immediately taken back to the Democracy Sustainability Act (of 2012), which was designed to support political activities (i.e. political parties and independent candidates), but owing to much public resentment, the law was scrapped. In 2012, I penned an article: Liberia’s Quest for the Public Funding of Political Parties: A Case of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly in Public Policy Formulation. At the time, I mentioned (in the article) some of the mishaps of the law: like the fact that the law did not have enough guarantees of accountability for funds.

I also criticized provisions in the law which called for funding for coalitions and independent candidates, since in fact the law was meant to fund political parties. I also criticized provisions in the law on funds management and control, duty-free privileges and the lack of restriction on private sourcing of funds. However, in principle, back then and now, I’m totally bought on the issue of public funding of political parties. This position does not in any way suggest that all the 30+ political parties in Liberia should get public funding.

Perhaps an electoral performance threshold can be set at 10% of total votes cast during general and presidential election. At this level, parties performing at or above the 10% threshold should be able to get some public funding to strengthen the party system and to build our nascent democracy in general. Without this – public funding of the well-established parties– we are likely to see the current myriad of parties without principles, where the deepest pockets call the shots, as opposed to a party system where people compete on the basis of the strength of their ideas.

One clear benefit I see in this proposition also is that it could very well lead to a reduction of the number of political parties. Parties unable to reach the 10% threshold at the polls are likely to lose out on funding and are mostly like be absorbed by other larger parties.  Sooner or later we expect so see only a handful of parties, as the financing system, by its operation, is designed to weed out smaller parties.

This idea is nothing new. Similar thing happened in the Nigerian banking sector when the threshold for banking license (capitalization) was raised under erstwhile CBN Governor, Charles Soludo. At the time, many smaller banks (unable to meet the threshold) were compelled to merge into larger banks or to close shop.  Today, in Africa, Nigerian banks are rivalled only by South Africa. In Liberia, we can achieve similar feat in our fractured and unprincipled political landscape but changing the rules of the game (the laws).

The idea of public funding of political parties is already well established in many vibrant democratic nations around the world. For example, it’s done in South Africa, England, Germany, the Netherlands and in most of Europe. Other places where it is done include the Philippines,Hong Kong, New Zealand, USA, Canada, and most of Latin America.There are good reasons why many of these advanced countries support public funding of major parties and it has nothing to do with the fact that they have so much money to waste.

These nations have come to realize that funding political parties with public monies promotes fairness, as much as accountability and transparency in the electioneering process and in governance. It helps to minimize the temptation for politicians to seek private funding, which often comes with strings attached, some of which strings are detrimental to the public interest.

Public funding of political parties also minimizes corruption in public service, which arises out of the need to payback campaign debts or to cater to whims and caprices of those illegal interests which supplied campaign finance. Public funding of political parties is now actively encouraged by the UN Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) as another important step in promoting integrity in electioneering and in public service as a whole.

Beyond the issue of public funding for parties meeting a minimal threshold (eg. 10% at the polls), Liberia’s current electoral finance law are inadequate to fully police the current financial shenanigans occurring in party finance in Liberia. Under the amended elections law of 2014, there should be no funding from outside of Liberia, safe for Liberians living abroad; while companies and other legal entities can contribute no more than USD100,000. But given that the law is scanty on the policing (the how), we see parties spending USD400,000 – USD600,000 on cars alone.

Why can’t the election commission, acting on its own initiative, call for an investigation? Can’t the election commission request an investigation from the LACC or other investigative agencies?And what are the bases in law for carrying out such investigations? These are the kinds of questions, among others, one expects a comprehensive election finance law to answer. The issue of public funding of parties is not much of an issue, as it is generally accepted that well-governed political parties contribute to better policy formulation and better governance at the local and national levels.

What is important is that the laws on election finance are comprehensive enough and embodies sufficient safeguards for accountability, transparency, and much more importantly, embodies guarantees for not only the freeness but also the fairness. So far, our elections are more free than fair. And this has to change!

Wonderr K. Freeman Attorney-at-Law Monrovia, Liberia

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About Cholo Brooks 3432 Articles
Joel Cholo Brooks is a Liberian journalist who previously worked for several international news outlets including the BBC African Service. He is the CEO of the Global News Network which publishes two local weeklies, The Star and The GNN-Liberia Newspapers. He is a member of the Press Union Of Liberia (PUL), including several other international organizations of journalists.