There are many attributes of Caribbean democracies that must be celebrated.
Countries in the Anglophone Caribbean have largely held to the Westminster system bequeathed to them by their former colonial bosses, political parties have moved in and out office, though more frequently in some than in others and there is an understanding that human rights must be protected. Religious freedoms are largely guaranteed and compared to other parts of the world, the media is considerably free. There is, largely, freedom of association and expression and citizens have the hard earned right to vote. In most of these countries, elections are undoubtedly free and fair and in others, there are efforts to deal with the known blemishes.
Yet, there is an emerging a consensus that the method in which political parties are funded represents one of the main challenges to the future viability of democracy in the region.
One of the main publications on the subject – Handbook – Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns, produced by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), correctly points out that political parties are critical – ‘Democracies cannot function without them.’ The authors continue ‘Parties are expected to reflect the concerns of citizens, aggregate and mediate diverse interests, project a vision of a society and develop policy options accordingly. They are supposed to inspire and attract supporters to their cause, their membership being of key importance in their claim to represent citizens.’
They point out that whatever criticisms are levelled at them, political parties ‘Continue to be entrusted with what is perhaps the most strategic responsibility of modern democracy – to prepare and select candidates for parliamentary and presidential elections and then to support them into positions of leadership and government.’
Many citizens, who only consider the political process when it is time to vote, give little thought to the fact that parties need to generate income to finance not just their electoral campaigns but also their running costs as political institutions with a role to play between elections. They have little time to consider the extent to which money influences the political process and how this affects their everyday lives.
Yet, the discussion and advocacy for changes to the way political parties and funded has now reached a high point. The Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (MIND) says that its discussions and debates revolve around three questions: ‘How free should parties be to raise and spend funds as they like? How much information about party finance should the voter be entitled to have? How far should public resources be used to support it?’
The fact is that less than transparent, and in many cases, corrupt political party campaign funding poses a credible and urgent threat to democracies in the region.
Transparency International is the main global civil society organization leading the integrity debate. So important is this subject that TI developed ‘Standards on Political Party Funding and Favours reflect best practice.’
It says that:
‘The need to clean up political finance Corruption in political party and campaign finance damages democracy because it undermines elections and distorts political competition. But the damage is not confined to the electoral process. The quality of government is marred when subsequent decisions by elected politicians are taken to pay back those who funded their ascent to power, rather than for the benefit of the population as a whole. Equally, when a political party resorts to paying for votes rather than focusing on the quality of its campaign message, democracy suffers.’
‘Corruption in political finance erodes trust in the institutions of democracy, when scandal after scandal reveals politicians sharing the spoils of power with their financial backers. Transparency International's Global Corruption Barometer 2004 found that in 36 out of 62 countries polled, political parties were considered to be the most corrupt institution, followed by parliaments. Faced with evidence that voters do care about the ways in which electoral politics is financed, governments around the world have taken steps to regulate political party and campaign financing. Many have introduced disclosure laws, whereby parties must publish details about who gave them money, how much, and what they used it for. Others have banned certain types of donations that are considered more prone to corruption, such as corporate donations. Another route taken by countries is to lessen the need for money by providing state subsidies, shortening campaigns, providing subsidised access to the media, or curbing the amounts parties may legally spend.’
The Standards go further than external regulation, however, and consider the importance of vigilance by civil society and the media and of internal political party and business controls.’
Indeed, this serious subject needs continuing discussion and action.