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Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Time for transparent political financing model

 

By Zayd Shaukat

As Malaysia moves closer to an inevitable election to restore some semblance of political stability to the country, political parties have started election preparations.

It is usually at times like this that we start to see rampant abuse of political financing, otherwise known as money politics. First, one may ask, what exactly is money politics? As there is no set definition, each individual has a different answer. Some say paying people to hang flags or giving petrol money is considered money politics while others say it’s only money politics if cash is used in exchange for votes.

Regardless of how “money politics” is interpreted, one has to question where political parties obtain their financing and how strong an influence private donors have over the parties and their policies. It is relatively clear that money politics is the root cause of the deep-seated corruption in Malaysia.

According to a study conducted by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, two-thirds of countries in the world have a public funding or a state subsidy system in place to fund political parties. This system is meant to reduce the influence of private money in politics and to provide a more equal playing field for all political parties. However, Malaysia does not have this system in place.

At present, politicians from whichever party is in power are seen to be interfering with businesses by appointing members of their party to sit on the boards of government-linked companies which enables contracts to be dished out under dubious circumstances to members of the party or businesses who have been funding the parties.

Malaysia also does not have any legislation in place which prohibits political parties from receiving donations from foreign countries. This can adversely impact our sovereignty indirectly as foreign states would have influence over domestic policies . A committee was set up during Najib Razak’s term as prime minister to study the matter. However, the committee did not not reach any agreement that foreign political donations should be prohibited. Furthermore, there was no consensus among members of the Cabinet on accepting the recommended reforms.

There are also no set limits as to how much a private individual or a corporation can donate to parties. It is common knowledge that some political parties have received donations in the tens of millions from certain individuals or corporations. This would cause the parties to be leashed by the donors and the parties would not be able to advocate for policies in line with their principles should they clash with the interests of the donors.

Political parties are also not required to publish their accounts to the public. This lack of transparency is a disservice to the voters and to the party members.

While the Election Offences Act 1954 sets an expenditure limit of RM200,000 for a candidate contesting in a parliamentary seat and RM100,000 for a state assembly seat, there is no limit as to how much a party can spend during the election period. It is widely acknowledged that the Act is outdated, and the amount stipulated by the Act is not realistic.

Another issue is that there is no enforcement with regards to the expenditure. Has any candidate spent more than the threshold amount? There has not been an instance where the Election Commission stepped in to take action over this.

Pakatan Harapan, in its manifesto, promised to introduce a Political Financing Act which would regulate political donations by ensuring the source of funding can be identified. It was to include, among other things, a clause barring political parties from owning assets above RM1 billion. However, the coalition was removed from power after a mere 22 months — before it could introduce the much-needed legislation.

Bersih 2.0 published a report recommending vote-based direct funding for parties and their campaign expenses, and to adopt similar measures taken by many democracies by introducing public funding under the jurisdiction of the Election Commission. Bersih 2.0 recommended that no more than 0.05% of the annual federal budget be used for this purpose with a maximum of RM133 million to be allocated to political parties based on their vote share.

It is about time that a clean and transparent political financing model is adopted in order to have a clean election and to ensure that political parties fight for policies they believe in without having to succumb to vested personal and corporate interest.

That being said, a political financing legislation, while much needed, is apparently unpopular among politicians and political parties as it would severely restrict their ability to source for funds to ensure their and their party’s survival.

Political parties may also look at reforming their internal party procedures to set a limit on the maximum donations which can be received. By way of example, newly set-up MUDA has set a limit of RM150,000 for all corporate donations and RM50,000 for all individual donations.

This however requires a significant amount of political will to make it a norm for all political parties. - FMT

Zayd Shaukat is a policy analyst at the Center of Public Policy Studies.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of MMKtT.

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