Dealing with Money Politics, the scourge of Thai democracy (4 March 07)

Dealing with Money Politics, the scourge of Thai democracy By Abhisit Vejjajiva 4 March 2007

  Dealing with Money Politics, the scourge of Thai democracy By Abhisit Vejjajiva 4 March 2007

Despite the widespread debate on the various issues concerning the new Constitution, there is a noticeable lack of focus on the biggest problem facing Thai democracy for the last three decades, namely, money politics

Granted, the CDA have touched on other related issues such as vote buying and corruption. However, the tendency has been to focus on piecemeal solutions such as the future of the Party List system, the size of an electoral constituency, where to tally votes, how to empower the Election Commission and how to improve the checks and balance mechanism etc. Although these are important issues, this approach tends to overlook the bigger picture of the problem.

The CDA must realize that practices such as vote buying are symptoms of a much bigger problem. Even vote buying itself has become much more sophisticated than a one time payment in exchange for votes to win office and opportunity for corruption. The issue that has to be tackled is the role of money in politics, an issue with which even mature democracies often struggle to get to grips.

In order to effectively tackle this problem, we must begin with the reality.

1. Expenses - Political parties and politicians must shoulder sizeable expenses, which can be categorized as follows:

1.1. Expenses directly associated with political activities which are under the legal threshold. These include expenses incurred during campaigns such as posters, vehicles, rallies, as well as purchasing radio and television advertisements. The total cost of the above according to the law (but unrealistic) would amount to 700 million baht (400 constituencies x 1.5 million + 100 million allocated for Party List candidates) for each party. These do not include expenses incurred during non-campaign periods such as expenses associated with meetings, seminars, political rallies as well as office (headquarters and branches) expenses.

1.2. Expenses indirectly associated with political activities which are necessary to build political bases and networks. These include social taxes (such as gifts to constituents at weddings and funerals), which normally far exceed the official salary of a Member of Parliament. This means many politicians have to resort to corruption at the local level or seek financial support from "fraction leaders", in turn leading to corruption at the national level. Such expenses are not seen as a means of vote buying. Yet the sheer amount of money involved can far exceed expenses during the campaign with perhaps even more political impact.

1.3. Expenses associated with illegal political activities (vote buying). Such expenses have been widely discussed. Previous researches suggest the turnover of hard cash for vote buying activities during campaign periods is simply staggering.

In the past, efforts to deal with the problem have focused solely on point 1.3 (expenses associated with illegal political activities i.e. vote buying). While this is important, failing to address others cannot possibly ensure clean politics. Moreover previous attempts to set a ceiling on spending imposed upon politicians have been greatly unrealistic, thereby leading to the growth of underground money.

2. Income - under existing political regulations, there are only two possible sources of revenue:

2.1. The Fund for the Development of Political Parties. This is a government sponsored fund allocated to political parties. Funding allocation is determined upon a party's number of votes received, number of members of parliament, number of branch offices as well as total number of registered members. Despite its noble intent, the system is still flawed for the following reasons:

- The funds allocated fall far short of what is needed to cover "legal" political activity expenses as described in 1.1.

- The fund has numerous limitations on how it can be used. For instance, the electoral commission has decided that the fund cannot be used to finance a Party's branches office expenses.

- The fund is open to many abuses; individuals have been known to set up political parties and branches, as well as manipulate their membership records solely in order to receive endowment from the Fund. This problem has worsened considerably to the extent that millions of Thais are now members of more than one political party. Last year alone, one party with no noticeable electoral support or activities claim to have increased its membership by six million!

2.2. Donations. Although currently regulated by law, there are a number of problems which have arisen as follows.

- There is no ceiling as to how much a person, a family or a company can donate to a political party. As a result, big financiers become the true owners of the party. Their interests then dominate those of the country for party members.

- All donors are required by law to disclose their identities. Many citizens wishing to give small donations refrain from doing so for fear of intimidation by political competitors in government.

3. In order to effectively and systematically deal with money politics, one must include the following set of rules and regulations in the countrys future legislation:

3.1 Formalize a system of financial accountability for politicians and political parties by making it mandatory for all politicians and political parties to maintain a political account and disclose an income/revenue record for all political activities. Any attempt to exclude political income/expense from this record must be recognized as a criminal offense.

3.2 Reduce the overhead cost of operation for politicians and political parties by using government resources to support party activities such as media and postal service or by imposing strict yet reasonable guidelines concerning the production and distribution of printed campaign material (e.g. by regulating the amount of posters a candidate can distribute). More importantly, the government must deem all expenses in category 1.2. (expenses indirectly associated with political activities but which are necessary to build political bases and networks) as political expense and hence must be declared and regulated. In many countries, such expenses are banned or may be permitted but are strictly controlled under a stringent cap.

3.3 Improve legislation governing political party donations by allowing anonymous small donors and by providing a ceiling on how much a person, a family or a company can donate to a political party. Moreover, the government can facilitate donors by allowing them to earmark their taxes for supporting a party of their choice and by permitting donors to contribute to individual politicians as well as to parties.

3.4 Improve the management of the Development of Political Parties Fund by confronting problems concerning party membership and branches. Moreover, the Fund should provide incentives for parties to engage in constructive activities.

Lastly, the drafters of the Constitution must be realistic about using accurate assumptions and figures to implement the above plans, otherwise Thai politics will once again be forced to operate underground, rendering any new legislation useless.