Schools bags, school books, seed and fertilizer, clothes, sewing machines, clocks, calendars, and mobile phones – these are just some of the items that were distributed to the public during the 2015 Sri Lankan Presidential election campaign as “election bribes”. Indeed, this election was plagued by widespread violations of election law and the blatant misuse of state resources, including the illegal display of cut-outs, distribution of money during political meetings, the use of vehicles belonging to state institutions for propaganda purposes, and the construction of illegal election offices. Moreover, overall spending on election activities by the two main candidates was colossal. Incumbent Mahinda Rajapaksa (the losing candidate) is reported to have spent over 2 billion Rupees (approximately US$13 million) of public funds on his advertising campaign alone, excluding the cost of production, while the winning candidate, Maithripala Sirisena, is reported to have had a budget of 676 million Rupees (approximately US$ 4.4 million) for electronic and print media.
In this context, reports that the Cabinet of Sri Lanka has unanimously approved a proposal to amend the country’s election laws in order to place more controls on campaign-related expenditures is good news. Such reform would address a gaping void in the existing legal framework: although Sri Lanka has laws prohibiting vote-buying and similar practices, there are currently no laws regulating campaign finance. The specifics of the approved Cabinet Memorandum are still not publicly available, and it is therefore not yet possible to offer a detailed evaluation of the proposed changes. Nonetheless, given what we already know about election campaigns in Sri Lanka—especially regarding the corruption risks associated with the lack of adequate regulation—it is possible to offer a few general observations and recommendations.
- First, while new campaign finance laws are certainly needed, so is the full implementation of existing laws. The Sri Lankan Constitution gives the Commissioner of Elections the power to prohibit the use of public property for a candidate’s campaign. Furthermore, the dishonest misappropriation of public property, and the use by public officials of public resources for their own benefit, are already criminal offenses. Yet these laws are not rigorously and consistently enforced. It’s important that new reform initiatives do not shift attention away from the ineffective or selective enforcement of the current legal framework regarding election-related corruption.
- Second, the information available so far suggests that the contemplated amendment to the election law will impose a spending cap for election campaigns. But even though limiting the amount of money that can be spent by a candidate will provide for a more level playing field, it will not expose the existing network of lobbyists, businesses, individuals and interest groups (and even nations?) that can and do substantially affect the outcome of elections. It is therefore important, as Transparency International has argued, that a “minimum requirement” of an amended campaign finance law is a provision mandating that candidates disclose the sources of their campaign funding, in order to reduce the space for illegal activity such as quid pro quo corruption and money laundering in the election process. Mandatory disclosure will also benefit voters by providing them with a better insight into the interest groups which are supporting each candidate, which voters can then use as a reference point to assess the sincerity of the stated objectives of each candidate. It is not yet clear whether the proposed reforms to Sri Lankan law includes such a mandatory disclosure requirement. (Certain sources suggest that the Elections Commission will be given the power to inquire into “the finance of candidates, the source of their funding and what they spend on,” but inquiry is not the same as the disclosure.)
- Third, broader reforms to political institutions are necessary to make election laws effective. In addition to the Election Commission, it is imperative that the Inland Revenue Department, the Auditor General, the Bribery Commission, the Police, the Judiciary and other governmental agencies join in an inter-institutional effort to ensure that elections are free of corrupt practices. Additionally, a comprehensive review of the entire legal system should be undertaken in order to identify the spaces within which corruption in elections thrives, such as allowances for the discretionary use of funds and resources by politicians. Finally, any election law should also be supported by a framework that allows for extensive investigatory and enforcement powers to designated officials and institutions which are free from political interference and the fear of backlash.
The idea of regulating campaign finance in Sri Lanka has been discussed since 2013. The unanimous approval of Cabinet to amend election laws to control election campaign-related expenses is the first concrete step that has been taken since the said discussions, and should be applauded. While even incremental change will be a step in the right direction, the Sri Lankan government should require the compulsory disclosure of all sources of campaign finance, and should also engage in wider systemic reform of the root causes that allow corrupt practices to thrive during elections. Time is of the essence, given that the Local Government Election is to be held next month. However, it seems highly unlikely that any reform will be implemented before February. The regulation of campaign finance and the compulsory disclosure of funding sources has the potential to be a watershed in the reduction of corrupt practices in Sri Lankan democracy, and all stakeholders in Sri Lanka with an interest in “good governance” must hold the government accountable to its promises in this regard.