Campaign finance fallacies

[Sent to both the Phnom Penh Post and the Cambodia Daily. Published by the Post on 3 September 2012.]

Four Cambodian NGOs placed an advertisement in the August 27 Cambodia Daily and August 28 Phnom Penh Post, headlined “Statement to Appeal for Establishment of a Campaign Finance Law in Cambodia”. The advertisement went on for a whole page in the Daily (half a page in the Post), asserting that such a law would make elections more “fair”, but didn’t manage to state what provisions are wanted in it.

However, 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 web site 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 organization, 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 web site, 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, although I doubt it is really more active at it than the US military.

Concerning democracy, Koul Panha, the executive director of COMFREL — one of the organisations sponsoring the August 27-28 advertisement — was interviewed by the August 14 Phnom Penh Post about the proposed campaign finance law. It quotes him as criticising: “Even though the National Assembly is the most powerful government institution, the CPP controls it”.

I don’t know if the comment reflects something he was technically supported in by IFES. But 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 or not elections are 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 the smallest parties, rather than making things fairer for them.

* A ceiling on campaign spending would not be very meaningful. Where they exist in developed countries, 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. For instance, if party A has 2 million members and party B has 1 million members, equal spending means that, on average, A’s members are 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 the sense that access to more information generally gives the public a better chance of deciding issues wisely, but it is easy to think of other areas where disclosure would be a higher priority — not to mention the social, economic and developmental issues that the National Assembly needs to consider.

The current 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.

However, 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 like to suggest that they include at least one more provision: a ban on direct or indirect funding of political parties or their 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.

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