TT has a very proud record of successful election management. And while democracy is not only about elections, credible elections are a necessary component.
While saying this, Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC) chairman Mark Ramkerrysingh, addressing the 19th annual general meeting of the TT Transparency Institute at Queen's Park Oval, Port of Spain on Thursday night, also said over the years parties were using more creative strategies to gain any advantage which required significant financial resources.
However, he said, at present, there was no real or proper regulatory system for accountability in acquiring or spending these financial resources.
He explained that in the absence of state funding, parties were required to raise large amounts of money from individuals or corporate donors. Private donations, however, opened parties to the danger of undue influence from those financing those operations. He said it was common for financiers of parties to have access to the corridors of power, influencing legislation, appointments to positions and award of contracts, and this was a real and present danger.
Ramkerrysingh said this did not deny the need by political parties of financing to carry out their activities.
"Political parties have become essential for our system of governance and have valid financial requirements. Transparency in regard to party funding helps to ensure that the electorate understands the influences under which politicians are likely to come when they are in government. It makes it much more difficult for parties to be influenced by external interests, reducing the likelihood of undue influence and lessening the danger of patronage in public appointments and contracts."
He said the purpose of party and campaign funding regulation was to prevent the undue influence of financiers and encourage a level playing field among the parties contesting an election.
The electorate, he said, needed to know how its political parties were financed and by whom, and what commitments, if any, were being made in accepting donations from wealthy supporters or companies.
For the authorities to effectively regulate spending, he felt, there should be a clear distinction and limits placed on the different types of expenditure, with set rules applicable to them, relating to campaign expenses, general party expenses, third-party spending and the candidates’ own private finances.
He also pointed out: "At present, the EBC has the power only to assign symbols to political parties. There is no requirement that parties themselves must be registered. The EBC has on its records 154 symbols, therefore suggesting possibly as much as 154 parties, with more symbols being assigned every month.
It should also be noted, he said, that the term "'political party" is nowhere defined in any law in TT.
"This is an important point when considering the regulation of political party and campaign financing."
Section 48 (1) of the Representation of the People Act says: “No sum shall be paid and no expenses shall be incurred by a candidate…or by his election agent whether before, during or after an election on account of, or in respect to the conduct or management of an election in excess of the amount of $50,000 in the case of a parliamentary election or $25,000 in the case of a Municipal Council or the Tobago House of Assembly election.”
Ramkerrysingh said the EBC has regularly noticed that expenses incurred during an election campaign far exceeded what was disclosed by candidates' submissions of election expenses to the commission.
This shortcoming in the act, he said, provided a window of opportunity for parties' election spending to continually go unchecked.
Since 2009, he revealed, the EBC has been actively pushing for appropriate legislative measures for electoral financing, which included registering political parties, reporting and public information, limits on election expenses and contributions, public funding and compliance and enforcement mechanisms.
Ramkerrysingh said non-governmental organisations such as the TTTI can maintain pressure on politicians to take action.