A friend of mine disclosed that a mayoral candidate in the mid-west region he was canvassing for had spent Rs 15 million in campaigning.
Soon after the recent local elections one of my friends shared an interesting fact about campaign finance. The friend, who had returned to Kathmandu after spending three months as lead campaigner for a mayoral candidate of a sub-metropolitan city in the mid-western region, disclosed that his candidate had spent Rs 15 million in election campaigning. “For poor leaders contesting elections, it’s an impossible task to get elected,” he said.
The money was spent in organizing poll rallies, hosting top leaders from Kathmandu and in daily expenses for election workers, among other purposes. Apart from these expenses, the candidate had to pay some money to party headquarters and district party office after his candidacy was confirmed. Around Rs 700,000 was spent just to organize a motorcycle rally for a mass meet that would include his party chief who had come to address an election rally in his constituency. To make the rally a success, t-shirts with the party’s election symbols were distributed, and petrol was provided free of cost for motorcyclists.
After spending millions and adopting all kinds of tactics, this candidate was successful in defeating his rival by a slim margin. But his dues are yet to be settled. As the lead campaigner, my friend keeps getting phone calls from local entrepreneurs requesting that outstanding dues be settled at the earliest.
Oodles of cash
The Election Commission (EC), the body responsible for managing elections, sets expenditure limits for candidates, but in vain. Candidates openly flout election code of conduct as they spend tens of millions of rupees, while the commission looks on helplessly. For example, the EC had asked mayoral candidates of sub-metropolitan cities not to cross Rs 250,000 in poll campaign. But the aforementioned mayoral candidate spent nearly Rs 15 million. Some candidates have spent even more.
So much for the recently concluded local elections. As two more crucial elections—for federal and provincial parliaments—approach, candidates are again spending copious amounts to lure voters. Seemingly everyone is into predicting who will win and who will lose. But no one is talking about the source of money being used for poll financing and legal limitations on it.
The election body has fixed spending limits for candidates contesting the upcoming parliamentary and provincial elections. A candidate contesting central parliamentary elections under the First-Past-the-Post system cannot exceed Rs 2.5 million in poll campaign. Similarly, a candidate contesting provincial assembly elections under FPTP should limit expenditure to Rs 1.5 million. Likewise, a PR candidate contesting parliamentary election should limit campaign expenditure to Rs 200,000 while a candidate contesting provincial assembly elections under the same category should not spend more than Rs 150,000.
Candidates are allowed to spend on office operation, printing voter rolls, transport, publicity materials and mobilizing party cadres for election purposes—and for no other purpose. But huge sums are being illegally spent on vote buying, chartering of helicopters, unwanted motorcycle rallies, T-shirts and so on.
This is happening even though the legal ceiling for campaign expenditure continues to increase every election. Until 1991, the expenditures for parliamentary elections were capped at Rs 65,000. Then, in 1994, the cap in was increased to Rs 100,000—eventually reaching Rs 250,000 in 2017 (See the accompanying graph).
Through the roofs
Coming to 2013 CA elections, around Rs 500,000 was adequate to contest elections back then, according to election candidates I talked to. The poll expenditure for a candidate now easily crosses Rs 10 million, according to them. Parties hardly provide Rs 200,000 to each candidate, and candidates themselves have to manage the rest.
Unable to win people’s hearts and minds the right way, parties seem more and more focused in accumulating properties for election purposes. This tendency has corrupted the democratic process and legitimized corruption in our political parties. Entry of infamous gangsters —Dipak Manange, Ganesh Lama and Min Krishna Maharjan among others—corruption-accused and billionaires is a result of this phenomena. Businessmen are picked as lawmakers under PR category after they pay huge donations. After they are elected, these businessmen greatly influence public policies. Recent faulty policies related to health, education and transport are partly the outcome of dirty money in politics.
Campaign finance is thus opaque. That is why, political parties, which still do not fall under the jurisdiction of corruption oversight agencies, are consistently named as one of the most corrupt institutions in corruption perception surveys. Influence of money in politics is so great that genuine leaders who don’t have enough resources or access to rich donors—businessmen, manpower agencies and contractors—are gradually sidelined from politics.
Don’t bank on them
Political parties’ non-transparent deals have encouraged commercialization of political parties. Increasing influence of money in politics has also promoted criminalization of politics. This, in turn, has paralyzed both the public and private institutions, causing great difficulties to general public.
To control unwanted election expenses, ahead of the 2013 CA elections, the EC had proposed that the political parties collect their funds only through the banking system. This was done to make the process more transparent and prevent conflict of interest. But all major political parties broke their promise to use the banking system.
Both informal assessments and media reports suggest election expenditures of political parties and their candidate are unrealistic. They spend huge sums on elections but in their disclosure to the commission, they show pittance in expenses. They don’t seem at all serious about making election financing transparent.
This is the right time to ask candidates to disclose their funding sources and actual poll expenditures. It is also up to the voters to vote out non-transparent or corrupt candidates and elect cleaner and more transparent ones.