Money in Politics: Political Finance Regimes across the Globe

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By Michael Moses — May 27, 2015.

Money changer at the bazaar displays his currency wares

Money changer at the bazaar displays his currency wares

The influence of money in politics is a hot button issue. Recent elections in countries as diverse as the United States, Malawi, Bangladesh, and Venezuela have seen large inflows of money of uncertain provenance. Many political finance regimes across the world are characterized by low levels of public disclosure, and information on donors, spending, and even the actions of oversight authorities are frequently unavailable to citizens. The opacity of political finance systems leads to serious questions about electoral and democratic integrity.

Over the past year, Global Integrity has collaborated with the Sunlight Foundation and the Electoral Integrity Project on the Money, Politics, and Transparency Project (MPT), an innovative effort that investigates the role of money in politics and generates evidence to inform the development of general principles for campaign finance reform. As part of MPT, Global Integrity has worked with more than 100 political finance experts across the world to research the MPT Campaign Finance Indicators, a uniquely comprehensive national-level investigative survey of political finance regulation and enforcement in 54 diverse countries. The Campaign Finance Indicators provide detailed data on the laws that are in place to regulate campaign finance in each target country, and use relevant evidence from the most recent electoral campaign to to assess how, in practice, political finance regulations are enforced.

The indicator dataset builds upon previous work by International IDEA to generate some key insights into the intricacies of political finance regulation and enforcement in countries across the world.

  • First, the entities charged with overseeing money in politics are often ineffective due to a lack of merit-based, independent leadership. Capacity constraints and operational opacity also restrict the extent to which monitoring bodies are able to effectively and transparently regulate financial flows during campaigns. Of the 54 countries covered in the MPT research, only six, including Korea, Poland, and Costa Rica, consistently enforce sanctions stern enough to deter repeat violators.
  • Second, despite the frequency of laws banning the use of cars, staff, buildings, and other non-financial state resources during election campaigns, such goods are often put to work for electoral purposes in 51 of the 54 countries covered — Sweden, Austria, and the United Kingdom are the only exceptions.
  • Third, many countries have contribution or expenditure limits, but in practice, those limits are violated more often than not, and money is channeled into campaigns while bypassing oversight mechanisms.
  • Fourth, legal requirements mandating the reporting and disclosure of political finance information are inconsistently applied in practice. Despite extensive requirements in many countries, details on campaign contributions and expenditure are rarely publicly available and/or comprehensive.
  • Fifth, the independent political activities of third party actors like unions, foundations, political action committees, and other organizations, are subject to very little regulation. The salience of third party actors varies from country to country, but the MPT evidence indicates that their influence is growing, and few countries effectively require or enforce reporting requirements on such actors.

The data give rise to a number of questions. How does free, open political finance information inform inclusive, accountable political processes? How can open data affect political finance regimes? How might gaps between de jure legal frameworks and de facto realities be reduced? How can open data standards be adapted to the specific realities of political finance regimes in countries? What are the characteristics of successful reform efforts in this field, and what challenges impede change?

I’m heading to the Third International Open Data Conference (IODC) to lead an interactive discussion of these issues with political finance experts from across the world. I’ll be joined by Lindsay Ferris of the Sunlight Foundation, Daniel Freund of Transparency International, and Delia Ferreira Rubio, a political finance expert with years of experience working on governance, for a free ranging discussion of their experiences with political finance issues.

The panel will take place from 10:30am – 12:30pm on Friday, May 29, in room 202 in the Shaw Centre in Ottawa. Come with questions and thoughts, and we’ll look forward to a productive conversation about the ways in which open data can influence the role of money in politics!

Photo credit: Image courtesy of Flickr user IMTFI under CC 2.0