Liberia has reached critical milestones in the national electoral reform exercise which began in the aftermath of the 2017 electoral cycle.
Numerous factors led to the trending reform discussion. However, one topic of global import to electoral management has yet to gain traction in the Liberian context: the matter of campaign financing.
For ECC National Coordinator Oscar Bloh, elections are not only about the highly visible processes – voter registration, civic education and voting. Elections also entail equally essential but “behind-the-scene” processes such as how parties and candidates mobilize and expend funds.
Both what is apparent and what is less transparent impact and determine the outcome of elections.
It is no secret that the 2017 forerunners were involved in what could be described as a “showdown of financial strength”. Fleets of vehicles costing hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of United States dollars were paraded along the streets of Monrovia. Political parties, including the Unity Party, Liberty Party, and the Liberian People’s Democratic Party (LPDP) that later formed part of the CDC coalition, showcased brand new pickups, buses, motorbikes and allegedly, even a private jet.
That this lavish spending coincided with one of the worst economic periods since Liberia’s war years—a situation that the many presidential hopefuls were purportedly going to reverse—made it all the more jarring. A display of such spending power during an economic downturn, coupled with a political climate in which dues-paying is not the norm has, not surprisingly, raised questions.
As increasing numbers of people began to wonder how political parties were being funded, and hint at a range of possibilities, the Center for Transparency and Accountability in Liberia (CENTAL) formally spoke out on the issue. At a press conference convened in the heat of campaign season, Program Manager Gerald Yeakula reflected on the unusually high expenditure and seemingly endless sums of money “dished out” to various community dwellers and projects. “Where are the sources of these monies? Are Liberians the sole contributors of these funds? Are foreign contributions or illegal contributions making their way into our election?” Yeakula wondered.
Yeakula informed the media that Liberians might indeed have reason for concern, “Because with the inflow of any illegal contributions, Liberia risks private interests capturing the state and public resources diverted away from the people.” Meanwhile, Mr. Bloh noted that numerous ECC requests to the NEC for access to political party financial reports, from 2017 and prior elections, have yielded no results.
The Elections Commission’s silence may not have been an indication of dereliction of duty, but it was nonetheless worrisome.
Liberia is a party to the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), which recognizes that correct handling of political finance impacts a country’s ability to effect free and fair elections, and consequently institute good governance. UNCAC makes the case that signatories must “enhance transparency in the funding of candidates for elected public office and, when applicable, the funding of political parties.”
The Liberian Constitution likewise addresses the significance of campaign financing, assigning the NEC responsibility and authority to regulate the financial activities of political parties and candidates. Chapter VII, ‘Political Parties and Elections contains eight articles, of which Article 83 (d) reads:
Every political party shall, on September 1 of each year, and every candidate of such political party and every independent candidate shall, not later than thirty days prior to the holding of an election in which he [sic] is a candidate, publish and submit to the Elections Commission detailed statements of assets and liabilities. These shall include the enumeration of sources of funds and other assets, plus lists of expenditures.
Where the filing of such statements is made in an election year, every political party and independent candidate shall be required to file with the Elections Commissions additional detailed supplementary statements of all funds received and expenditures made by them from the date of filing of the original statements to the date of the elections. Any political party or independent candidate who ceases to function shall publish and submit a final financial statement to the Elections Commission.
On constitutional grounds, the 1986 Elections Law empowers the Commission to examine and audit financial transactions of political parties and candidates; with power to revoke the Certificate of Accreditation of any political party, alliance or coalition, or to impose a fine for violation of election laws and regulations. In 2016, NEC formally adopted Campaign Financing Regulations (CFR) to specify the regulatory framework deriving from the stipulations of constitutional and electoral law.
NEC’s CFR stipulates, for example: a requirement for every political party and presidential candidate to designate a campaign treasurer; that temporary vacancy of said position should immediately prohibit all financial campaign activity (receipt of contributions and outlay of funds); that the treasurer is under obligation to record and report to the NEC every contribution over US$20 received, as well as each expense made, including the date, recipient, and purpose.
The regulations prohibit receipt of funding from anonymous sources; contribution by one “legal person” totaling more than US$100,000 or its equivalent Liberian dollars; utilization of public resources for campaign activities, including any contribution resulting from an abuse of state resources.
They also state that fifteen (15) days after announcement of final results of any election, including by-elections, the political party or candidate shall furnish to the NEC a report of assets and liabilities, an itemization of contributions and expenses and a final campaign finance report. Thirty (30) days after the announcement of results for each election the NEC is responsible to “make public” all documents received, including through publication of financial summaries on their official website.
Again per the CFR, the NEC “may establish an Audit Committee which, within sixty (60) days of an election, may complete a certified audit of the book of accounts of any political party or candidate; and shall have the power to retain an independent auditing agency to conduct certified audits of the financial transactions of a candidate or political party.”
Any violation of the regulatory provisions, whether failure to submit all forms and accounts as specified or bypassing the expense limitations set, that the NEC finds to have been “knowingly and willfully” undertaken, is to be considered an election offense subject to financial and/or criminal penalty. NEC may report violations it constitutes as offenses to the Ministry of Justice for enforcement or prosecution as the case may be.
In summary, NEC is expected to regulate, manage, enforce and uphold the rule of law. Political parties and those seeking elective office are expected to behave within the confines of electoral laws. Citizens are to be duly informed.
While the reform exercise is not a blame game or a fault finding mission, it is about the business of asking hard questions and objectively looking at the facts.
It remains to be seen whether political parties and candidates are conforming to finance regulations. It is also unclear to what extent the NEC has adequate resources, and is able to correctly commit them, to oversee the campaign financing landscape. Appropriate statutes, judicious implementation of laws and regulations, vigilant enforcement, campaign financing education, financial oversight and public disclosure are key components of national electoral integrity.
It costs money to run a campaign, and to run an electoral management organization. If NEC cannot or does not fulfill its mandate, the consequences may be even more costly.