Will we get there on time?

Campaign finance is a key issue for the quality of democracy. As we noted in a recently-published book of which we are co-authors, and which we had the honor to present in the Hall of Former Presidents of the Legislative Assembly last February 11 (El costo de la Democracia: Ensayos sobre el financiamiento político en América Latina, UNAM, Mexico City, 2015), it is important because of an inescapable fact: While democracy has no price, it does have an operating cost. The use of economic resources is an essential element for democratic competition. More than a pathology of democracy, political financing, when well-regulated, is a normal part of democratic life.

Yet it is undeniable that money is capable of introducing distortions in the democratic process. Its unequal distribution impacts, first, on the real possibilities enjoyed by the parties and the candidates to take their message to the voters. Second, having money gives individuals and social groups a differentiated possibility of participating in elections and exercizing their influence over the candidates through their contributions. This is vital for democracy. When political power is simply a reflection of economic power, the principle of “one person, one vote” loses meaning. Third, fundraising efforts offer obvious opportunities for the articulation of exchanges between donors and those who make decisions on public affairs, or at least for the continual appearance of conflicts of interest. This can be very problematic in the case of Latin America, where there is a risk of money from organized crime penetrating the campaigns.

And so it is not surprising that the issue is on the political agenda in many countries of the region, just as it has been for a long time in Costa Rica. Costa Rica introduced public financing for political parties in 1956, making it the second country in the world to do so, after Uruguay. Nonetheless, the generosity of the government contribution did not avoid a long succession of scandals associated with the issue, a history that includes figures ranging from Robert Vesco and Manuel Antonio Noriega to Carlos Hank González and the illegal donations from the government of Taiwan. 

The wounds left by each of these episodes gave way to worthy yet incomplete regulatory efforts. Most important has been the reform of the Electoral Code approved in 2009, which among many necessary changes prohibited corporate contributions to the political parties. And not only legislative action has made a difference. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court has also made a difference by lifting bank secrecy on financing, a very important decision that has been pointed to internationally.

Each of these steps has been moving the country in the right direction. This is worth underscoring: At a time when it is so easy to revile the Costa Rican political system, it should be recognized that in terms of political financing the country is, in general, better situated than it was 20 or 30 years ago. All the evidence we have indicates that private contributions today are less important in our campaigns than one generation ago. We can state with great certainty that our parties are financing more than 80% of the cost of their campaigns with the state contribution. That is good news.

However, the current regulatory framework presents problems such as:

a) It continues to be a regulatory system that is somehow upside down: It meticulously keeps tabs on the use of the state contribution by the parties, which does not give rise to conflicts of interest, while it is much less effective when it comes to verifying the truth of the information the parties provide about their private sources of financing, which do have the potential to compromise the autonomy of the political system. Correcting this imbalance, getting the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to prioritize monitoring private financing and to devote more resources to it, would not only be a way to straighten out its priorities, but frankly, all the parties would also breathe a sigh of relief.

b) The system of advances on the state contribution continues to be very limited (only 15% of the subsidy is disbursed before the presidential election and nothing in the case of municipal elections). It is time to admit that eliminating the system whereby the contributions were distributed in advance payments, which existed from 1971 to 1991 (when 50% was disbursed in advances), caused grave prejudice to the political system. The weakness of the advanced disbursement has ended up leaving the parties at the mercy of banks and lenders during the campaigns. Worse still, today the possibility of a party receiving loans during the campaign against its electoral expectations depends entirely on the fickle behavior of the opinion polls. This is unfair and risky, as the OAS electoral observation missions have noted.

c) The legal framework does little to limit parties’ spending on advertising, one of the most effective ways to reduce outlays during campaigns and to bring about fairness in electoral competition, which is one of the most important objectives in improving the current system. One must evaluate the advisability of adopting a system of advertising slots (provided free of charge by those holding concessions for the radio spectrum or purchased by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal and then made available to the parties) as has been done, with a positive outcome, by other democracies in the region such as Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Mexico.

d) The current regulatory framework has serious vulnerabilities at the local level. Requiring the parties to file a single financial report with the contribution they receive nationwide (the same system that exists for the presidential election) is insufficient when in practice there are 81 local elections in which each candidate raises and spends money autonomously. Let’s be clear: Relatively little is known about who finances the campaigns at the local level in Costa Rica. This would not matter much except that the experience of other countries – from Mexico to Colombia – shows that local campaigns are the preferred point of entry for organized crime to penetrate the electoral structures. Reinforcing the financial controls on municipal elections is one of the country’s most urgent tasks in relation to campaign finance.

Costa Rica has made major strides in regulating political financing. Yet there is an urgent need to address the weaknesses in the current regulatory framework. There are bills in the legislative pipeline, such as No. 18,739, introduced by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal in April 2013, that incorporate almost all the reforms suggested here and that provide an excellent basis for moving this inevitable discussion forward. 

We will have to address the problems in the current regulatory framework sooner or later. The question is whether we will do so before or after the next scandal. Let’s hope that, for once, we act on time.

This piece was originally published by International IDEA