OPINION: Rethink needed on political party funding to prevent pacts with elites

In September of this year, the Western Cape High Court ruled that citizens had a right to request that political parties disclose their private donors.

Nomalanga Mkhize

The application brought to an end a longstanding debate on whether funder disclosure would hurt or help our still growing multiparty democracy.

On one side of the debate are those who hold the view that voters have a right to know who funds parties in order to ensure that they can make an informed voting choice.

In addition to being able to make an informed choice, transparency is seen to decrease the potential for political capture by major donors of the party political process.

However, those who argue for limited or no donor disclosure at all say that complete transparency about donors would prejudice the opposition or smaller parties whose donors may be threatened once it is known who they back financially.

In this view, transparency can become a weapon by powerful political parties who can make it difficult for less influential parties to attract nervous funders.

There is a view that trumps both these views, and that is one of idealism, that sees party funding coming through many small donations by a mass support base.

Realistically of course, mass individual donations do not work well for sustaining the operational machinery of political parties, especially the larger they get.

This is because parties must build up and maintain large operational infrastructure to ensure they can have a national presence, run campaigns and handle ongoing party matters.

Thus while parties are in one sense political movements, they are also actually bureaucratic organisations which require resources to enable them to remain politically viable to their constituencies – constituencies which they hope to grow.

Political parties thus face an ongoing conundrum of having to raise sufficient funds to maintain their daily operations and manage their constituencies.

Even though parties often set up investment arms in order to enable them to have some cash, the sheer size of their operations requires ongoing fundraising and their cash-flows may not always be in the healthiest state.

Take, for example, the recent allegations that Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign effectively merged itself financially with the operational machinery of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) that is tasked to run the Democratic Party.

It appears that the DNC, as a party machinery, was bankrupt and in debt and needed a major cash injection to pay its staff and bills – Clinton in effect bailed the party out by merging her own election campaign fundraising with the needs of the DNC at large.

The trouble with this method of course is, as Clinton’s critics have argued, that it meant that the Democratic Party appeared to favour her as a candidate over the other contender, Bernie Sanders.

However, if the reports that the DNC was bankrupt are true, then in many ways Clinton did not have much of a choice but to pour money in through her own influence as a historic presidential candidate.

The key problem seems to be that the DNC had been running on an unnecessarily large staff contingent which means salaries had to be paid even outside of the elections season.

Now if this was the reality which confronted the DNC, think about how South African parties are affected by resources constraints in our socioeconomic context.

Let’s be honest, 60% of this country is poor and this segment of the population is not going to be funding their parties from their pockets. This leaves wealthy private donors and the public purse.

In the end, private donors and political parties often cultivate close relationships with parties they fund. This immediately creates cosy relationships between political and economic elites.

Thus while multiparty democracy may be our best idea for democracy, the party funding question requires that we think more deeply about how financing these parties requires some level of elite pacts to be made in the process.

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