Money and politics
By Ian G. Strachan
Nassau, The Bahamas
What role will money play in The Bahamas’ 2012 general election? Does the party with the most money always win Bahamian elections? That is the feeling of many observers. Money will be spent, of course. Lots of it. But we will have absolutely no idea where this money comes from. And that is the way Hubert Ingraham and Perry Christie want it.
Is the U.S. government, through some company, funding one political party over the other in our election? Is the Chinese government bankrolling a party’s election campaign? Which Lyford Cay residents are backing political campaigns and which campaigns? Which private businessmen, Bahamian or expatriate, are making campaign contributions, and how much? Are numbers houses backing candidates? Drug lords? Which lawyers are ‘borrowing’ money from their local and international clients to finance political campaigns? And what will all this mean in terms of the new government’s choices when in office? How will we, the citizens ever know, truly know, how the decisions regarding our tax dollars, present and future, are being made and the extent to which campaign contributors are shaping those decisions?
The issue in other countries
Ronald Sanders, in a piece called “Caribbean electorates: Not for sale”, wrote recently that, “General elections in St. Lucia and Guyana on November 28 have raised serious questions about the financing of campaigns and the unfair use of state resources by governing political parties to gain an advantage over their opponents. In St. Lucia, it is alleged that a significant portion of the United Workers Party (UWP) campaign funds came from Taiwan. The UWP was the ruling party at the time of the elections and the then leader of the opposition and leader of the St. Lucia Labour Party (SLP), Kenny Anthony, had engaged in a public row with the Taiwanese Ambassador over his blatant interference in the electoral politics of the island. In Guyana, it is claimed that the ruling People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C) outspent its three rivals by a sizeable margin in the elections campaign.”
Interestingly, in a 2010 case called Citizens United v. The Federal Election Commission, the United States Supreme Court made a ruling that essentially repealed mechanisms that had been put in place by the U.S. Congress and Senate to control the power of big money to shape U.S. elections, via the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 among others. Even with those laws in place, the 2008 election of Barack Obama had been the most expensive in U.S. history. Obama’s campaign budget alone was three-quarters of a billion dollars. The figure is likely to reach a billion in 2012.
The Citizens United ruling, which passed on a 5-4 vote in the Supreme Court, states that it is unconstitutional to deny corporations and unions the right to the First Amendment, or “free speech”, which includes the right to fund political campaign ads. This essentially treats corporations as people.
Former President Jimmy Carter called the ruling “one of the stupidest rulings ever consummated or perpetrated on the American people”. In an interview with Tavis Smiley in 2010, he went on to say, “It is a complete transformation or change of what our country has done ever since it was founded. That is, to try to put some restraint on the massive infusion of money into the political campaign. And also to have those who do make the contributions legally identified. You can make it in secret now... When I ran against Gerald Ford in 1976, he and I used public money. We used a $2 per person check off. $26 million total. And when I ran against Ronald Reagan four years later (1980), we did the same thing.”
President Barack Obama himself has been highly critical of the ruling, calling it “a major victory for big oil, Wall Street banks, health insurance companies and the other powerful interests that marshal their power every day in Washington to drown out the voices of everyday Americans”.
Obama said further, “They can buy millions of dollars worth of TV ads – and worst of all, they don’t even have to reveal who’s actually paying for the ads. Instead, a group can hide behind a name like ‘Citizens for a Better Future’, even if a more accurate name would be ‘Companies for Weaker Oversight’. These shadow groups are already forming and building war chests of tens of millions of dollars to influence the fall elections.
“Now, imagine the power this will give special interests over politicians. Corporate lobbyists will be able to tell members of Congress if they don’t vote the right way, they will face an onslaught of negative ads in their next campaign. And all too often, no one will actually know who’s really behind those ads.”
The reality, however, is that despite receiving over 60 percent of his campaign funding from people who gave less than $1,000 each, Obama could not have won the 2008 election if not for “the tens of millions that lobbyists, PACs, corporations, Wall Street, and labor unions shove into a presidential candidate’s campaign coffers”. This is according to political analyst Earl Hutchinson, who concludes that “the bitter reality [is] that politics is a hard, dirty, cash-soaked game, and those with the most cash will always have the edge.”
A system open to abuse
No less than in the U.S., our politicians and our Parliament are bought and sold. We are not allowed to know who is doing the buying, but we know who is doing the selling.
The perverting power of money doesn’t end with general elections. Many, as our prime minister recently admitted (with tongue in cheek, I can only assume), are entering politics as a means of economic advancement.
“It is sad to see that we have moved to a place in our history when many who seek to offer themselves for election to the House are motivated by the desire to achieve personal success and not by a dedication of service to others – that is the general public," he said.
The fact is that the corrupt culture of our politics makes it very difficult for a politician to do otherwise. The people ‘shake down’ the representative at every opportunity. He/she is expected to be financial godfather for all his/her supporters and even for those who didn’t give support, not just in order to get elected, but throughout his/her term in office. This burden cannot possibly be sustained by an MP’s salary; particularly an MP with his/her own children to house, feed and educate. This opens the door to the temptation: MPs seek to repay themselves through unofficial means sometimes just to avoid bankruptcy. Even MPs who were financially successful before being elected run the risk of suffering financially when in office because their pay is miniscule when compared to what they made in private life. Accustomed to a certain standard of living and somewhat embittered by the constant begging of constituents, some politicians find ways to feather their nests by personally profiting from the awarding of contracts, etc. That is to say nothing of the men and women who conclude that there is no way for them to attain the lifestyle they desire period – unless they enter politics as a career and make it their business to take advantage of the largesse of the state.
Michael Parenti, noted American author of the book “Democracy for the Few”, asserts that “to curb the power of the moneyed interests and lobbyists, minor-party as well as major-party candidates should be provided with public financing. In addition, a strict cap should be placed on campaign spending by all candidates and supporters, with no loopholes allowed”.
Politicians can feel insulted; corporations and lobbyists may label it undemocratic, but transparency is the best safeguard of democracy that we can have.
Still other politicians have made so many enemies that they must ensure they are financially ‘set for life’ because their enemies, once in power, will make sure that neither they, nor their children, nor their children’s children will ever enjoy a single opportunity.
We know it’s happening but we can’t find the evidence very easily. The Public Disclosure Act of 1976 isn’t worth the paper it was written on.
Obviously this situation cries out for reform. The problem is the people who suffer most from this state of affairs (the general public) don’t understand that they suffer. They pay for this corruption in ways they don’t understand. In ways that far outweigh the measly bribes they are able to squeeze out of their elected representatives at election time and on the rare occasions they catch them on the street. Without enlightened leadership, the system will go on perpetuating itself.
• IAN STRACHAN is Associate Professor of English at The College of The Bahamas. You can write him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dec 19, 2011