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Money in Politics: Is there Hope? A Global Take

I’ll be in Mexico City September 3-5th for the first Global Conference on Money in Politics. Knowing that almost $400 million has already been raised for our presidential election that’s still a year away, I’ll be all ears. Spending in the U.S. presidential race alone almost doubled from 2000 to 2012 and is predicted to double again next year, reaching over $4 billion.

So I want to find out how other countries are fighting for democracy against its corruption by powerful private interests.

My learning began in a conversation with Secretary General Yves Leterme of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), a Stockholm-based organization of 28 member states. It is a co-sponsor of this historic conference with the Mexican Electoral Tribunal of the Federal Judiciary, OECD and others.

From your global perch, in what recent breakthroughs do you see significant democratic progress?

The balance between citizens and leaders is going in a positive direction. People just don’t accept cheating with the rules anymore! Social media is playing a big role in creating more transparency. Consider Tunisia. It is a difficult time for this new democracy—bordered by Libya, Algeria and challenged by terrorists—but despite a backlash, the country is trying to give rights to women and to stabilize its democracy after successful electoral processes. Tunisia is a true democratic breakthrough to emerge from the “Arab Spring.”

Also, a number of countries are experiencing the peaceful transition of leadership as a normal part of life for the first time. Think of Nigeria and Senegal. And in Burkina Faso citizens stood up against an unconstitutional extension of mandate. Next may be Myanmar, where we’re working with both citizens and the government to make possible a smooth, peaceful transition.

And in the opposite direction, what are the biggest democracy setbacks you see?

Terrorism, clearly, is undermining democracy by forcing too many democracies to focus on security rather than furthering democratic development. But in the US and Europe, it is disengagement and disenchantment with the political process that threaten democracy. Democracy loses legitimacy because of money in politics. US election spending per capita is estimated to be 20 to 30 times more than in Germany, for example. Campaign spending is increasing in other countries, too. In the UK, political spending has increased three fold since 2010. Yet, the US is still the outlier.

Another problem is that citizens are no longer engaging in democracy through traditional institutions. Lower voter turnout is a sign of disenchantment. Even among Croatians, voter turnout was only 20 percent in the first European Parliamentary election after the county joined the European Union in 2013. Also worrying is the trend of lower voter turnout among younger voters.

I have learned from International IDEA that, unlike the US, there are rules democracies are enforcing to remove, or at least blunt, the influence of private wealth. What are these means?

Many countries use a range of measures to ensure that private wealth and corporations do not determine electoral outcomes. However, private contributions also play a positive role and therefore, IDEA promotes enforceable rules that set maximum limits or enhance transparency. For example, most European countries ban anonymous donations, and worldwide almost half of countries limit the amount that can be donated to political parties and candidates. Two-thirds of countries also provide direct public funding to political parties. Of course, there are many ways to have a democracy, and IDEA is a non-prescriptive organization, meaning that we do not tell people how to do democracy in their countries. What do you think of the approach of governments offering citizens vouchers or tax credits to encourage citizens to contribute? Might this approach help to reconnect citizens to the electoral process? In our House of Representatives, a bill with a provision for citizen tax credits has 150 co-sponsors.

Yes, the approach you mention can work. In general, public funding is effective if there are limits on what citizens and companies can donate. That way individuals can know they have real influence. However, such measures are only effective as part of comprehensive reform addressing other aspects of electoral democracy.

I know International IDEA works primarily with governments, particularly emerging democracies. You also work with citizens, but how?

An example is our work with citizens using IDEA’s democracy-assessment tools. Our Assessment of the State of Democracy enables citizens to evaluate the quality of their democracy, from service delivery—such as child care or sanitation—to avenues for citizens to hold elected officials accountable. Some governments are themselves encouraging citizen engagement. I was just in Mongolia where government is working to raise awareness that democracy is more than elections and has encouraged citizens to put these tools to work. Malawi is another example.

Municipalities are also using these tools. Paris, for example, involves citizens in “participatory budgeting” where citizen assemblies can decide on how a share of the municipal budget is spent. The goal is inclusion and involvement in the administration of democracy.

I am impressed by IDEA’s emphasis on gender equity as a key element of democratic equality and your encouragement of gender quotas as a means. It’s striking to me that the US Congress is only 20 percent female, which is below the world average of women in national legislatures and only half the share of many established democracies. What specific actions are enabling the move toward greater gender equity?

No nation can thrive while putting aside 50 percent of the capabilities of its population. The under-representation of women in politics is a result of multiple forms of discrimination, often implicit, that women encounter in private and public spheres. Quota systems are very important. Also, in parliamentary systems, where candidates appear on lists for voters, a “zipper list” system mandates that every other person on the candidate list is a woman. In Tunisia, citizen pressure has produced a program for gender equality for the first time. While in some countries it can take a long time before these efforts see results, quota systems help to accelerate the change. In Bolivia and Rwanda already about half of elected politicians are female, partly thanks to this system.

Please tell me more about how you see the role of civil society in helping to build and support true democracy? The quality of democracy depends on civil society not just standing outside and criticizing government. Civil society organizations need to truly interconnect with government. Citizens’ use of our assessment tools is an example. In some countries trade unions representing workers interconnect well with governments. Also, social movements sometimes become political parties. In India, for example, in Delhi state a social movement became the Aam Aadmi (Common man) Party and gave voice to a lot people for the first time. It turned out the established party. In Spain, Podemos, a movement against inequality, became a political party last year and already has the second largest membership among parties. These are positive developments. Finally, Secretary General, what is the most urgent message about money in politics that you believe the world needs to hear right now?

That the equality of citizens is the essence of democracy and the role of money undermines that equality. Money in politics is endangering the legitimacy of democracy.

Images courtesy of International IDEA and the UN

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