28th September 1997

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Check on campaign cheques

The PA in its beautiful 1994 mani- festo had promised a clean admin- istration, with openness and transparency in public life and business dealings. In the afterglow of a historic election victory, President Kumaratunga had pledged that the era of the henchaiyyas or the political sycophants and crony capitalists had ended. But it seems that the talk was largely window-dressing and what we have seen is a change of curtains from green to blue. Inside the dice are loaded while moral values are decaying.

All the queen’s CID men seem to have been unleashed on the Customs that raided the powerful Stassen’s House and also to find out who leaked the story to the media. The hunters have become the hunted amidst an uproar in sections of the Customs..

The Director General of Customs has requested The Sunday Times not to aggravate the situation, while promising to investigate the issue.

We have confidence in him and his officials to do a thorough job of the investigations and in fairness both to those investigated and the country. The entire episode, however, begs a question — have the crusaders against influence peddling, chosen to be silent?

This brings us to the issue of campaign funding. During the past two decades, and especially after the introduction of the proportional representation (PR) system of elections, we have seen a disturbing increase in political influence peddling. This is not a phenomenon reserved for Sri Lanka or to democracies.

In the US and Britain debates are raging over campaign funding. Earlier the politician had to look after only a small electorate. But under PR, the entire district has become his or her electorate. So the politician has to find more funds from business men and others. Sometimes the politicians sell or mortgage their properties to fund the campaign, knowing that when they come to office they can earn or plunder ten times as much as they invested.

That is why politics is known as the biggest and the dirtiest business in the world, as we see in the United States where both President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore are facing intensive probes on alleged irregularities if not something worse in their campaign fund-raising.

In the midst of what’s going on now with regard to the Stassen’s probe and the dispute in the Permanent Commission against Bribery and Corruption, to which we referred last week, we call for some practical steps for public auditing and accountability on party campaign funding.

While funds are indeed necessary for party work, especially before elections, we believe it is time to bring in some legislation, requiring parties to disclose who provided the money and how much and how it was spent.

Perhaps, an independent and acceptable figure like the Commissioner of Elections could oversee this area with powers to impose penalties or strictures. Otherwise, this country too will be riddled by politicians in office having to cash IOUs to wealthy entrepreneurs.

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