India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

The Charbonneau Commission’s Underappreciated Contributions to Fighting Corruption in Quebec

This past November, the four-year saga of the Charbonneau Commission finally drew to a close. Established in 2011, the commission had three main goals: to examine collusion and corruption in Quebec’s construction industry, to identify the ways in which the industry has been infiltrated by organized crime, and to find possible strategies to reduce and prevent corruption and collusion in public contracts. The two thousand page final report (available only in French) was the product of 263 days of testimony from over 300 witnesses, ranging from union bosses to prominent politicians, low-level public servants, and even members of organized criminal syndicates. While the commission had the makings of a potential political bombshell, the final report was met with little acclaim, and commentators have been quick to dismiss the inquiry as an expensive disappointment and a failed mission.

Since the release of the final report, the validity of its findings has even been called into question, with the media seizing on apparent disagreements and infighting between the commissioners. One of the two remaining commissioners (the third had died of lung cancer in 2014), actually dissented from the part of the findings that claimed a link between political party financing and public contracts. Emails subsequently unearthed indicate that the disagreement between the two commissioners on this issue goes beyond simple factual disagreement, with suggestions that the dissenting commissioner had objected to unfavorable portrayals of prominent members of the governing Liberal party. Some sources report that the two commissioners were not even on speaking terms by the conclusion of the inquiry. In light of their fundamental disagreements on such a prominent issue, some critics have called the commission at best dysfunctional, or at worst tainted by political interference.

Given the generally negative coverage of the commission, it would be easy to write off the Charbonneau Commission as yet another failed attempt to stymie corruption. In my view, however, to dismiss the commission entirely would be unreasonable. Certainly, the commission was not perfect, but it did offer meaningful contributions to the promotion of good governance, and there is much that can be learned from it.

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Political Finance Regulation and Perceived Corruption: Some Preliminary Exploration

Corruption is closely linked to problems associated with money in politics. Indeed, some have argued that an excessive/inappropriate influence of money on elections is corruption (even if it’s not necessarily illegal or currently viewed as unethical). Even for those who (like me) prefer a more restrictive definition of “corruption,” it is widely believed that these issues are related. Many hypothesize that countries with weak or ineffective systems of political finance regulation may experience higher levels of corruption—though at the same time excessively onerous, unrealistic regulations on political spending may also induce corruption in order to circumvent the official rules. Perhaps surprisingly, though, we do not have (or at least I have not yet seen) very much quantitative, comparative research on the relationship between the quality of countries’ laws on the regulation of political finance, on the one hand, and the extent of their corruption problems, on the other.

This may be starting to change, thanks in part to initiatives like the Money, Politics and Transparency (MPT) forum (a collaborative venture of the Sunlight Foundation, Global Integrity, and the Electoral Integrity Project). A few weeks back Rick posted a highly critical assessment of MPT’s volume Checkbook Elections, a collection of qualitative case studies. I haven’t yet read that report, but here I wanted to focus on another aspect of MPT’s work: a quantitative index that purports to measure how well 54 different democratic countries regulate political finance, based on responses to 50 survey questions in five different categories (public funding of elections, contribution and expenditure restrictions, reporting and disclosure, regulation of third-party actors, and monitoring/enforcement). The surveys include questions about both law and practice in all five categories; moreover, in addition to a composite index score, MPT also provides separate scores for the quality of electoral regulation both “in law” and “in practice.” (A detailed description of the methodology is available here.) All the usual caveats and concerns regarding these sorts of composite indexes of course apply here, but at first pass this seems like a useful resource, and potentially helpful in teasing out the relationships between political finance regulation and corruption more generally.

Real progress on this will front require careful research design, more extensive data, and the application of rigorous empirical methods—an enterprise for which I lack both the time and the talent. But just for fun, I played around a bit to see how the MPT index (and each sub-index) correlates with the 2014 Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). Are countries with better regulation of political finance (in law, in practice, or overall) perceived as more corrupt? Less corrupt? I’ll tell you what I found after the break, but just for fun take a guess now, before you know the answer!

OK, here’s what I found: Continue reading