Next year will be the largest election year in history. If you live in one of more than 70 countries heading to the polls in 2024, you might want to know: who pays for politicians’ election campaigns in your country?
This should be a straightforward answer, but it isn't.
Countries with more transparent campaign finance are likely to score twice as many points in the CPI. Yet, in far too many countries around the world, the sources of political candidates and parties’ campaign funds are shrouded in opacity.
The Electoral Integrity Global Report 2023, which publishes data on the quality of elections worldwide, ranks the transparent reporting of financial accounts as the weakest area in elections. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA)’s political finance database, politicians running for office don’t have to report their finances in 50 out of 181 countries. In 57 countries, political parties don’t have to, either.
In 64 countries across the globe, when politicians and their parties do have to report who is backing them, they can claim not to know, due to the lack of restrictions on anonymous donations. They can also list a shell company as a donor, without having to disclose who the real owner is. In countries where reports are expected, like Malta, Indonesia, or Uganda, they do not identify the actual donors.
Opacity in political finance is dangerous for democracy. When politicians are secretly funded by businesses or wealthy individuals, there is no way to know if the policies and decisions they support are designed to benefit their financial backers rather than the public interest.
Disclosure of campaign donations in countries with elections in 2024
Candidates might even be receiving foreign donations which incentivises them to put the interests of other countries before their own. Over 70 countries , don’t have bans on foreign donations to candidates, while 54 allow foreign donations to political parties.
Furthermore, almost half of the 181 countries surveyed, do not mandate political parties to manage cash flows through banks, meaning they can avoid creating a paper trail that investigators could use to uncover corruption and conflicts of interest., and more than half of countries don’t put limits on the size of donation candidates or parties can receive.
The consequences of opaque campaign financing extend beyond the electoral process, affecting the very fabric of democratic representation. Countries without limits on donation sizes or regulations on personal funds create an uneven playing field. Candidates that have access to a lot of private finance, make it harder for others to compete against them. According to a recent study, 11 per cent of the world's billionaires have run for office, and 80 per cent of the time they won.
This trend, coupled with the absence of financial constraints, inhibits grassroots movements from successfully fielding candidates. This ultimately means that the issues that matter to the public are not adequately represented in government. It also often leads to the exclusion of already marginalized communities from the decision-making that matters to them.
How transparent is political finance in your country?Check Internal IDEA’s database here
The right time to do what’s right?
Government delegates from hundreds of countries will meet in Atlanta, Georgia, USA for the 10th Conference of States Parties to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC). This biennial event presents a crucial opportunity for the international community to recommit to the fight against corruption and set ambitious new goals for mitigating its impact on our planet and societies.
Despite the high stakes, and an approaching pivotal election year , transparency in political finance is surprisingly absent from the more than 60 resolutions tabled so far.
However, all is not lost. Delegates still have the chance to champion political finance transparency at UNCAC CoSP and beyond.
Here are five key priorities that demand immediate attention:
1. Closing loopholes for illicit funds in politics
Corruption can enter politics through various channels, including illicit funds and opaque donations routed through shell companies, third parties or anonymous donors. Governments should enact and enforce laws that close all such loopholes, ensuring full disclosure and verification of the ultimate source of funds.
2. Introducing digital reporting and disclosure systems
Transparency is the bedrock of democracy. Governments should establish mechanisms for the timely and comprehensive public disclosure of political contributions, expenditures, and campaign financing. This should apply to all levels of government and political entities, including individual candidates, promoting the accountability of both political candidates and parties.
3. Improving oversight and accountability of political finance regimes
Accountability is essential in curbing corruption. Governments should establish and strengthen independent oversight bodies with adequate powers to monitor, investigate, and enforce compliance with political finance regulations. These bodies should be equipped with sufficient resources, autonomy, and authority to ensure the integrity of the political finance system.
4. Promoting knowledge, civic engagement and public participation
An informed and engaged citizen is essential to uphold democracy and counter corruption. Governments should actively engage civil society, encourage public participation in political finance oversight and protect the rights of whistleblowers who expose corruption within the political finance system.
5. Strengthening international cooperation.
Corruption transcends borders, and international cooperation is essential to combat it effectively. Governments should commit to sharing information, best practices and resources to coordinate and unify the global fight against corruption.