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Editorial | Get campaign finance systems in place | Commentary

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Fifteen months, which is when the next general election becomes due in Jamaica, isn’t a long time from now. We’d be surprised, though, if Prime Minister Andrew Holness, seeking to take advantage of perceived divisions in the Opposition People’s National Party (PNP), waits until then to call the vote.

It is perhaps with an eye on that likelihood that the Electoral Commission has been quite voluble recently in reminding Jamaicans about the need to upgrade their voters’ identification cards and advising on how and where this can be done. That’s a good thing, especially if it enhances Jamaica’s capacity to hold free and fair elections, something for which we have been gaining an increasingly positive global reputation.

But there is another matter on which this newspaper wishes to see the commission as energetic in protecting the integrity of Jamaican elections: its role as watchdog over how much is spent on political campaigns, and who finances them. For, in the absence of transparency, there is the danger of democracy becoming not so much about the will of the people, but who can afford to pay most for it. And that, too often, means special interests and bad actors.

Prime Minister Andrew Holness, as Jamaica’s leader – with a great stake in ensuring that he runs a country that isn’t perceived to be corrupt, or offering the best democracy money can buy – should insist that the Electoral Commission get the job done, even if it requires more government funding for the arrangement.

It was against the backdrop of these concerns that, after years of agitation by political-reform campaigners, Parliament, in late 2015, passed amendments to the Representation of the People Act, allowing for the registration of political parties, the establishment of limits for campaign spending, procedures for adhering to them, and regulations and penalties for failing to comply.

The legislation was too late to be applied to the February 2016 poll. The Electoral Commission wouldn’t have had enough time to put the systems in place. That won’t be a viable excuse next time round.

Under the law, Jamaica’s political parties can each spend a whopping J$630 million during an election for the campaign period, which begins at the end of the 54th month of a government’s five-year term, or anytime the prime minister calls an election before then, up to the day of the vote. That’s an average J$10 million per candidate, assuming that a party fielded candidates in each of the 63 constituencies, which is the norm of the governing Jamaica Labour Party (JLP) and the PNP. Combined, therefore, they could spend J$1.26 billion.

The law, however, opens the possibility for them to spend far more than that, depending on how they manage their accounts and how vigilant the Electoral Commission is in its policing to ascertain their real expenditures. Each candidate is allowed to spend up to J$15 million on her/his campaign, including any subsidies for the central party. So, the 63 candidates of a party are allowed, combined, to spend J$945 million.

On the face of it, if these candidates received/declared no subsidies or contributions from the central organisation and a party spent its full allotment on the headquarters-financed element of the campaign, the total allowable budget per party would be J$1.575 billion, or J$3.15 billion between the JLP and the PNP. That’s a lot of money.

NO ONE KNOWS

Up to now, Jamaicans don’t know how much money the parties actually spend on their campaigns, or how they get most of the money. The anecdotal evidence, though, suggests that it is hundreds of millions of dollars. A handful of companies disclose their contributions, but the amounts would be minuscule in comparison to the apparent cost for what the parties engage in. The assumption, therefore, is that there are plenty of shadowy figures and special interests who contribute to campaigns, to whom parties and politicians owe debts if, or when, they come to government.

The new law limits it to five per cent of a party’s total expenditure that a single individual can contribute, or 10 per cent in respect to a candidate, which suggest amounts of J$31.5million and J$1.5 million, respectively.

The public won’t automatically know who makes these contributions, but the Electoral Commission will have to be given the names of persons who donate J$250,000 and upwards. Moreover, parties and candidates have to file full accounts of their receipts and expenditures with the Electoral Commission.

The process isn’t nearly as transparent as it ought to be. It is, nonetheless, a start – if the honchos of the Electoral Commission put the systems in place to get it done, which Mr Holness should insist upon.

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