A proposed law titled “Regulation of Election Expenditure Bill” has been listed for its Second Reading in Parliament. Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), People’s Action for Free and Fair Elections (PAFFREL), the Centre for Monitoring Election Violence (CMEV) and Institute for Democratic Reforms and Electoral Studies (IRES) have for several years been campaigning for the enactment of a strong law to regulate the role of money in election campaigns.
The collective of election monitoring organisations emphasizes that a law that seeks to regulate election campaign financing should prevent undue influence of donors over candidates, parties and independent groups, create a level playing field for all candidates including new entrants and underrepresented groups and reduce excessive and illegal spending on elections including by means such as the misuse of public funds and vote-buying. To be effective, the law should also provide for a robust monitoring and enforcement mechanism by both the authorities and citizens.
However, the Bill that was Gazetted on 29th November 2022, is woefully inadequate to serve these purposes. The Bill bans campaign contributions from certain parties such as foreign governments, corporate bodies registered outside Sri Lanka, companies with foreign shareholding and anonymous donors. However, it does not impose any limit on how much funding a candidate, party or independent group can receive from any source, allowing space for undue influence.
The Bill foresees the designation of an authorized amount as the spending limit for a candidate at each election, which amount has not been considered with sufficient detail. It also does not, set out an adequate monitoring mechanism. It does not prevent spending by political parties and third parties, on candidates. As such, the proposed spending limit will only defeat the purpose of introducing this law.
The proposed procedure to enforce spending limits, is also inadequate. The Bill only provides that candidates should submit audited accounts to the Election Commission of Sri Lanka (ECSL), who will notify the public of their availability for perusal. An effective law would require maintenance and disclosure of separate all accounts of candidates, parties or independent groups to the ECSL, and would also make such information digitally accessible to the public, enabling easy scrutiny, and an opportunity to digitally identify irregularities.
When the Bill was placed on the Order Paper of Parliament, it was challenged before the Supreme Court, but the Determination of the Court is not yet publicly available.
While re-emphasising the critical need for election campaign financing regulation in Sri Lanka, the collective of election monitoring organisations calls upon the government to close the aforementioned loopholes in the Bill and to engage in a consultative process with the public, without rushing its passage in Parliament. A weak regulatory system can lead to a further deterioration of people’s trust in politics and the legitimacy of the electoral process, and will not achieve the objectives of introducing such a law.
The collective further reiterates that the introduction of a campaign financing law should in no instance be used as a reason to delay the holding of the local government elections. (TISL)