By Monaheng Rasekoai
Lesotho’s 2022 National Assembly elections were historic not only because of the peculiarity of a political party which is barely six months old assuming state power but also because of the ‘dominoes collapse’ of yet another political party that had dominated the political landscape for more than a decade.
Our experience with democracy cannot exclusively be ascertained from institutional politics alone but also from the relationship between electoral management bodies and political parties. The Electoral Management Body (IEC) has awakened to the painful reality that the democratic process neither ends nor starts with elections.
The democratic process is a continuous process that cannot be characterized by one event leading to the appointment of a Prime Minister and his Cabinet and the euphoria of 120 legislators who have access to interest-free loans and carte blanche powers to prescribe laws for the governance of a country with over 30,000 km2 and with a population of about 2 million.
I will make no effort to project seasoned arguments of tony intellectuals. Mine will be an effort to point several lessons learnt from these recent elections and some independent research on the subject of regulation of political parties.
I will first point towards the importance of regulation of party funding as an essential element that the IEC in this country has paid very little attention to. I will also point towards the significance of the auditing of political parties by both the electoral management body (IEC) and Registrar General of Society (RGS) as yet another important tool for the safeguarding of the democratic process.
I will ultimately point towards the inherent dangers that belie Lesotho in these areas and why they require urgent attention.
Although the constitution does not expressly mention the state’s obligation to fund political parties, it does seem to require that a lot of money be availed for running a successful campaign for public office.The state’s obligation to fund political parties can however be sourced from the Electoral Act.
The purposebehind the funding of political parties by the state is to ensure that all parties are able to compete for elections in accordance with the principle of equal opportunity, thus strengthening political pluralism and helping to ensure the proper functioning of democratic institutions.
The Electoral Act allows for the political parties to source additional funding from private donors. However, any donation exceeding M200 000.00 (Two Hundred Thousand Maloti) must be disclosed by the treasurer of the receiving political party to the IEC within seven (7) days after the receipt of such funding.
Have any of the major parties declared the source of their funding to date and if yes, is that information ready for public access? If the disclosure has not been made, what measures has the IEC embarked upon to enforce this critical provision of the Electoral Act?
The failure to carry out this statutory imperative of disclosure of both private funding in excess of the amount referred to political parties continues to contribute to the erosion of the democratic process that is envisioned in the Constitution.
The failure of IEC to regulate these donations for the past decade since the promulgation of the Electoral Act ought to be considered one of the most serious and significant failures of the IEC.
This is not to mention the institutional indifference of the office of RGS to perform its statutory mandate of auditing political parties and making sure that its transactions rhyme with both their statutory and constitutional obligations.
Further afield, the Electoral Act places an obligation on the IEC to prepare a separate report and audited statements regarding the funds disbursed to the political parties from the consolidated fund. Such a report shall include the amounts allocated to both the political party registered with the IEC and to the candidates.
The report must also include documentation of any failure to account for both public and private funding by a political party registered with the IEC or candidate in receipt of funds from the state. It must also include the steps taken by the IEC to monitor the proper use of funds allocated by the state and or private donors.
The mandate to investigate any alleged contravention in the use of the funds be it public or private funds and to recover any funds from any political party or candidate that has contravened the provisions underpinned in the Electoral Act equally lies with the IEC.
To make an informed assessment of the outcome of these elections we must ask whether the IEC has been forthcoming in this regard. I regret to openly state that the IEC is guilty of institutional indifference in this regard.
The statutory mandate of the IEC and RGS amongst others include recordal, preservation and simplified (yet effective) access to information on the private and public funding of political parties. But to date, there remains no record of any comprehensive measure towards meeting that statutory mandate by either of the two institutions.
Even in spite of the fact that the Electoral Act is more than a decade old, the IEC has to date not made any rules and regulations at least for the purpose of sketching the procedural framework for the deregistration of errant political parties.
This notwithstanding, the RGS has a comprehensive framework for the facilitation of the accountability and auditing of political parties that pre-date 1967 but there is no documented record of political parties being made to comply with the prescripts of the RGS.
These two institutions also bear the obligations of making provision for the recordal, preservation and facilitation of reasonable access to information on the private funding of political parties.
Some people, particularly researchers, have largely complained about the bureaucratic hurdles they get confronted with whenever they seek to be furnished with information on political parties from these two institutions.
It defeats logic why this information is not published in on official website of the IEC or that of RGS for the public’s easy access. There are sound policy considerations which inform the provision for disclosure of accurate information about political parties to the IEC.
The absence of information about the particulars of the funders of political parties and the extent to which they have been funded, leads to an inescapable conclusion that citizens are oblivious of the names and particulars of the funders neither do the citizens know their motives.
The effective exercise of the right to vote also depends on the right of access to information. For without access to information, the ability of citizens to make responsible political decisions and participate meaningfully in public life is undermined.
The reality is that the funding is usually for self-interest than benevolence. It has been proven in Lesotho’s case that the private funding of political parties serves as a vehicle for large-scale corruption mainly because there is lack of transparency. It is also because political leaders are beholden to the funders for whatever ulterior motives the funders may have.
The need to have accurate and comprehensive information on the compliance record of political parties is very important and for the following reasons: Firstly, to recruit members or supporters and to campaign for a political party or a political cause, information is needed; secondly, to be able to distinguish one’s party or cause from others would likewise require access to information about them; thirdly, one also needs to know more about one’s competitors as it enables them to appreciate their strengths, expose their weaknesses or wrongdoing while magnifying one’s strengths and making informed comparisons on presumably more progressive policies and objectives; and lastly, the funders also have the upper hand in influencing policy and the strategic appointments of several high-ranking officials particularly those who can play an instrumental role in securing the business interests of the funders.
Such business interests may include the awarding of state tenders, or large contracts. When ordinary voters do not privy to this information, they have no reliable way of deciding whether to support a party or not. The voters do not know with certainty whether the party’s policies are responsive to societal challenges or to the interests of the donors instead.
Private funding of substantial amounts enables the donors to exert a disproportionate amount of influence on political parties.
In the context of the absence of regulation, this state of affairs probably enables undue influence over political parties. Viewed from this context, the electorates’ concerns might in fact matter less to political parties and their leadership than the agendas of their donors or funders.
However, corruption in this context is not simply a quid pro quo corruption – payment of monies in exchange for a favour. American courts have since accepted that, the “appearance of corruption”, or efforts to garner influence or access to elected officials based on one’s wealth, is just as destructive: “Just as troubling to a functioning democracy as classic quid pro quo corruption is the danger that office holders will decide issues not on the merits or the desires of their constituencies, but according to the wishes of those who have made large financial contributions valued by the officeholder”.
But we must go further in our enquiry. It is not simply about public abuse, influence or appearances. The operation of this political system, so often cemented by laws, and a lack of regulation, is in itself “corrupt”. It ensures the maintenance of business as usual, and has the propensity to perpetuate inherited power and privilege. The provisions in the Electoral Act, dealing with contribution, along with those covering disclosure, are appropriate legislative weapons against the reality or appearance of improper influence stemming from the dependence of candidates on large campaign contributions.
The ceilings imposed equally serve the basic governmental interest in safeguarding the integrity of the electoral process. Clearly, the purpose is to combat any element of corruption or money laundering that may be fostered under the guise of campaign funding.
The assumption that the current government which is fostered by prominent businessmen who flaunt wealth, status and privilege as benchmark to social development, should not for one moment create a sequitur that (because of their material success in running their private businesses) they are not prone to corruption.
The narrative that wealthy people who assume public office bear the potential of staging a developmental project is equally a product of speculation and conjecture. Some of the problems facing the enclave Kingdom are structural than political…but developmental economists can express themselves better on this subject.
But the real questions to be debated about the wealthy businessmen venturing in politics should be the following: One, are they prepared to disclose the entire source of wealth to the Directorate on Corruption and Economic Offences (DCEO)?; two, are they prepared to disabuse themselves from the inherent dangers of influencing decisions which affect companies linked to them when it comes to tax obligations?; three, for purposes of transparency, are they prepared to disclose their tax returns for public consumption in order to win the confidence of the public as bona fide public officials who came to politics to rescue the situation or perhaps should I say the nation?
Fourthly and perhaps significantly, does resignation from a company serve as an adequate safeguard against conflict of interest – or should I say corruption? Put differently, what measures can be employed to make it possible for these wealthy businessmen to diminish any potential abuse of state power in some companies to which they ‘allege’ to have resigned from? Do these successful businessmen understand that conflict of interest may be both direct and indirect in the form of patronage, nepotism, cronyism and factionalism born out of the political system?
The general disclosure of source of wealth and tax obligations (whilst the latter is not a legal requirement) serve a substantial governmental interest in informing the electorate and preventing the corruption of the political process by wealthy politicians.
Beyond this, because of the importance of the transparency and accountability of organizations and functionaries who play a part in the democratic process of elections, it is imperative that they are regulated and subjected to stringent measures to avoid any illicit activities on their part. To this extent, I regret to publicly state that Lesotho still has a long way to go in regulating political parties and meeting the standards required to steer a credible democratic process through elections…The experiences that we must be prepared to take home from the past elections is that money really does matter in the electoral process…