3rd September 2000
By Faraza Farook, Nilika de Silva and Hasitha Premaratne
With the countdown to the elections on, political parties have begun marketing themselves to the voters who are more preoccupied with their battle against the rising cost of living. While the two major parties are ensured a steady inflow of funds, other parties have to strive to get the crumbs.
While the successful campaigning and survival of a political party amidst tough competition largely depends on the funding it receives, both small scale traders and leading business magnates are definite targets sought by politicians.
Ironically, a full page colour advertisement in a national newspaper costing more than Rs. 200,000 could easily feed an average household of four for two years.
Financing parties to carry out mega election campaigns runs parallel with campaigning to fill party coffers.
"Just like a newspaper needs advertisements, a party needs funding to survive," says UNP MP Ravi Karunanayake.
According to clause 127 of the Parliamentary Elections Ordinance No. 1 of 1981, each party which polled more than one percent of the total valid votes at the general elections of 1994 is entitled to receive financial assistance from the Government. The amount will largely depend upon the number of votes they were able to get, with the calculation being made at 50 cents per vote obtained.
Four million rupees will be allocated for this purpose by the Elections Commissioner but parties will only receive these monies after the handing over of nominations.
There is speculation that the main opposition UNP is trying to bring pressure on the government to increase the allocation of funds to contesting parties.
In addition to the official allocation of funds by the Government, political parties are financed by leading businessmen, business institutions and embassies. Of course, behind the willingness to fund lie ulterior motives such as the benefits the organization or the individual can get once the party comes into power.
The individual candidate's contribution towards his campaign varies according to his finances, and the funding sources he courts will also differ. "Friends and relatives contribute financially towards my campaign," said Minister A.H.M. Fowzie, a contender for the Colombo seat.
His personal contribution is something like five or six hundred thousand rupees.
The Sunday Times learns that PA candidate, Prof. G.L. Peiris has so far spent the largest sum of monies to promote his candidature.
Political sources also said the PA has received Rs. 50 million as funds from one of the leading multinational companies with over 50 subsidiaries in the country. The party was also reported to have been offered Rs. 25 million by a leading liquor trader.
JVP spokesman Wimal Weerawansa said that the JVP was supported by small scale businessmen and their own membership. Being critical of the top business organizations he said they fund both the PA and the UNP in order to ensure that they are secure whichever party comes to power.
Investigations revealed that many candidates spend over Rs. 50 million during elections. This includes the cost of newspaper advertisements, banners, posters, cut-outs, caps, T-shirts, badges, feeding supporters, erecting political platforms, providing sound systems, etc. Leaflets, pamphlets and even booklets introducing candidates are despatched through the post.
Then comes the public rallies. The construction of a platform to address a rally could cost Rs. 16,500 upwards if the meeting was being held in Colombo and much more when the transport costs are added on for outstation meetings, a leading dealer in the field said.
However, the question arises as to the position of parties such as the Sihala Urumaya, Puravesi Peramuna and the National Union of Workers which have come into existence just before this election. What is their financial position and how do they feel about the government allocation which they are not entitled to receive.
"It is very unfair," said the recently formed Sihala Urumaya party, Chairman S.L. Gunasekera.
"If a party has the right to contest an election it should also be entitled to receive the allocation from the Government," he said.
Some of the new parties are setting out to generate their own funds, not only through supporters locally but by addressing Sri Lankan residents abroad. The involvement of foreign lands in Sri Lankan politics is a subject that has often surfaced, but as in every other funding related incident a blanket of secrecy envelopes the facts.
Governed by their own political agendas, foreign countries tend to identify with local political parties with a view to stabilising the region through the government coming into power. The election campaign which has barely taken off has already seen a cost in human lives as two deaths have been reported since the announcing of the October 10 polls.
While calculating campaign costs in rupees and cents is in itself a challenge, estimating the cost of lives and limbs lost is a bleak prospect.
Election funding remains a secret with no party revealing where it obtains its funds.
While millions of rupees are being spent into marketing a candidate, the source of the funds used for the purpose remains a top secret.
The Sunday Times spoke to some of the political parties to find out what they feel about disclosing their funding sources. Though many supported the argument that sources must be disclosed they were also of the view that such a practice was not practicable in Sri Lanka.
"Every party should be in a position to disclose the way it funds its election campaign," Chairman of the newly formed Sihala Urumaya S.L. Gunasekara said.
When asked if his party was prepared to disclose its funding sources following elections, Mr. Gunasekera said he feared his supporters may be politically victimized. "Since we are in a society where supporters of other parties are considered as enemies, we cannot disclose details" he said.
Mr. Gunasekara suggested that laws should be passed to make it mandatory to disclose the source of funds for election campaigns and the authorities should ensure that the laws are properly enforced.
"It is because of patronage politics that funding sources have to be kept a secret," Deputy Leader of the SLMC and General Secretary of the National Unity Alliance, Mr. Rauf Hakeem said. "If one funds the main opposition of the party which comes to power, the funding source could be subjected not only to economic but perhaps even to criminal victimisation," Mr. Hakeem said, adding that the political culture in Sri Lanka today discourages the practice of publicising the names of a party's donors.
Leader of the New Leftist Front Vasudeva Nanayak-kara was of the view that a total disclosure of the expenditure should be made. He said that the best way to ensure the safety of any party would be for the Government to give a grant to parties and independent groups.
Endorsing that funding sources must be disclosed Mahinda Samarasinghe of the UNP said that except for the few privileged candidates who receive funding from local and international organisations, others find it difficult to raise funds.
Mr. Samarasinghe also pointed out that funding from external sources means 'opening up for favours which leads to corruption'.
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