Parties can play role in fighting corruption Editorial
Stabroek News
March 4, 2002

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Head of the Presidential Secretariat Dr Roger Luncheon recently had cause to lament the spate of corruption at government ministries and other places. And, just recently, after years of complaints of rampant malfeasance, the government sanctioned a probe of the Supreme Court Registry and the Deeds Registry.

Charges of corruption have frequently been levelled against the government by the opposition political parties and other groups and while hard facts and smoking guns have been hard to come by, just the whiff or the perception of graft can do enormous damage to the administration's image and the country's good governance rating. It can also fuel discontent and political instability. Where charges have been trained at government officials the PPP/C administration should see these not as attempts to undermine its position but as summonses for it to revalidate its commitment to rooting out graft. It must tackle these head on and defend itself. It has shown itself as unwilling to take decisive measures in crucial cases leaving it open to charges that it is turning a blind eye to acts of malfeasance. A prime example was what came to be known as the stone scam. There was enough uncovered there for several persons to be held accountable and publicly disciplined. If there was any disciplining it was done quietly and away from public scrutiny. That type of action does little or nothing to dissuade corrupt acts. For a number of years now the violation of tender board procedures and contract splitting have also raised eyebrows over the potential for under-the-table deals.

Political parties, particularly those in government, have a huge role to play in minimising corruption and it is something that should be explored more fully at the level of the dialogue between President Jagdeo and Mr Hoyte and in Parliament.

Around a year ago, the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI) and the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats pioneered a programme aimed at supporting political parties in their bid to implement internal anti-corruption efforts. It also addressed issues such as party financing and evolving public expectations. One phase of the programme involved research into the measures taken by parties to bolster internal accountability and limit the openings for money politics. The research involved parties in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Nepal, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan and Thailand.

A report by Laura Thornton on the research said that South Korea and Thailand have the most detailed measures aimed at limiting political corruption. In Thailand laws were passed in 1997 regulating party operations and finances. One key objective was to broaden membership bases of the parties and thereby reduce the prevalence of patronage and vote buying. The laws also cater for parties to hold internal elections for party posts with the possibility of an appeal to the constitutional court for those aggrieved at what they believe are undemocratic party decisions. In July of last year, under these laws, the Election Commission of Thailand approached the constitutional court seeking the dissolution of 17 parties for failing to comply with the statutes.

In South Korea, the National Election Commission sets campaign income and expenditure limits and requires each candidate to appoint an accountant to maintain a record of all transactions.

It was one of the findings of the report that despite laws governing the conduct of parties effective reform must first come from within the parties. In recognition of the damaging impact of corruption, the parties are pursuing a raft of measures. The Kuomintang Party of Taiwan (KMT) recently set up an independent reform task force of 40-60 party officers to confront corruption and buttress internal democracy. Initial reforms proposed include the use of public opinion polls and primaries to determine party candidates and the complete re-registration of members.

Very few of the parties still allow a small number of leaders to determine all candidates for an election and as democratic procedures have been integrated into party business the buying of party positions, patronage and cronyism are said to be on the wane.

The Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) of Taiwan has set up a special hotline for party members to blow the whistle on corrupt behaviour within the party nomination and internal election processes and term limits have been instituted to prevent a monopolisation of power by one group. The DPP, one of the more progressive of the Asian parties, has instituted primaries and public opinion surveys to select its candidates. The Gerakan Party of Malaysia allows all candidates for party positions to appoint election observers to keep an eye out for rigging and other transgressions.

A number of the parties have called in external management companies to control their assets and finances recognising that enhanced transparency of party finances narrows opportunities for fraud. The KMT is to transfer all of its assets into a trust managed by a private professional management company while the Marxist Leninist party in Nepal is now requiring all central committee members to obtain permission from the party before constructing or expanding their homes. The rationale behind this is to monitor for unusual accumulation of wealth. The threat of stern sanctions was also seen as critical to holding the line against corruption.

Last month, parties from the eight countries held an unprecedented meeting in Bangkok to consider best practices in implementing reforms in their parties. They agreed on a host of measures including transparency within parties with respect to financial contributions, greater democracy in the selection and election of candidates, dialogue with other sectors of society and enforcement of anti-corruption legislation and party standards through independent bodies such as elections commissions and anti-corruption bodies.

Parties here can surely do with healthy doses of reforms to their internal election procedures, the issue of party contributions and campaign financing. These are all closed-door operations with very limited numbers of party members in control. Would the two main parties consider giving the media full access to elections at their congresses this year?

The antiquated provisions of the Representation of the People Act on campaign financing are still to be addressed and the Integrity Commission needs a higher public profile and more firepower in the pursuit of corruption. Perhaps it is an area that the NDI might well see fit to raise with parties here in the deepening of democracy and accountability.

A zero tolerance policy on corruption can have an immeasurable impact on expunging corrupt practices in public life and elsewhere.