Political parties need money to carry out their day to day political activities and they spend a lot of money in their campaigns and other purposes. But the sources of political parties' funding are far from transparent in Bangladesh. The sources of political parties' funding should be transparent and accessible to the citizens for the sake of democracy, good governance and the security of the nation. It is very likely that the lack of transparency in political funding might lead to corruption and practices inimical to the interests of citizens. In reality, the political parties in Bangladesh, irrespective of their size and ideology, hardly keep any account of their funding sources and expenditures.
There are plenty of debates in our political arena regarding the legislation on financing of political parties, particularly funding of election campaign expenses and so on. In the western democracies, the political parties and candidates raise a substantial part of their election expenses from different sources which include personal fortunes and donations but these are generally well accounted for. Contrary to this, political parties in Bangladesh hardly bother to maintain accounts of their funding sources and expenditures. In absence of any accountability mechanism, millions of taka get transferred to hands without any accounting in the name of political donations.
The process of fund raising by political parties in Bangladesh is generally kept undisclosed. It is quite clear that the fund raising activity in the country normally takes place in a non-transparent manner. The political parties in the country collect individual, local and overseas donations from the supporters, admirers and business and industrial financiers. It is now an open secret that the major political parties raise funds through selling nominations to the well-off candidates of the parties in exchange of a hefty sum. This seems to be the modus operandi of funding of all the major political parties in Bangladesh.
Political funding is more opaque when it comes to electoral finance. Sources of political party finance can hardly be traced as there remains no audited balance sheet. Moreover, the reporting on finance within the party or to the Election Commission is quite inadequate. Whatever reports are submitted to the election commission, are far from comprehensive and lack in-depth details. Disclosure of election expenses by parties or candidates in election is too meagre compared to real expenses and thus not reliable. The candidates barely follow the Representation of the People's Order (RPO). There hardly remains any functional system of monitoring, including state oversight and civil society oversight.
Now-a-days, it seems that the process of candidate selection has turned out to be a money making mechanism in Bangladeshi politics which allows wealthy business people to take the centre stage in politics depriving veteran politicians. All the major political parties have the culture of buying and selling nominations. The trade off of candidates for money seems to be an outcome of the centralized control on decision-making process and lack of internal democratic practice within the political parties in Bangladesh. The culture of money making in politics is the result of mal-practices and non-transparency in internal party financial transactions. Political leaders are not held accountable for financial transactions or donations by members.
Till now, the question of political party funding has been seen as an extremely sensitive matter. The political parties never disclose their funding sources. Hardly any party discloses financial information even within the party. Political party funds are usually collected directly from businessmen and industrialists. Such funds are often donated voluntarily out of vested interest, and in many cases through extortion.
According to a new legislation, the political parties have been registered with the Election Commission and have to submit their audit reports annually. Such law regarding audits of party funding remains only in papers and are yet to become operational. Reporting on electoral financing is a new phenomenon in Bangladesh. Political parties in Bangladesh hardly abide by the rules and regulations of EC. After the 1996 elections, nearly 95% of the MPs did not submit the individual expenditure report, and after the 2001 elections none of the parties submitted reports of electoral expenses. Interestingly, after the 2008 elections most candidates and parties submitted their electoral accounting reports before the EC.
Transparency of political party funding must be ensured so that the money is not spent on anti-state activities. There are allegations that some of the political parties receive funds from abroad and are said to have their foreign backers. Most of the political parties in Bangladesh are divided over the question of identity, with either pro-Islamist or pro-secular agendas.
Our nascent democracy would be more consolidated if the Election Commission is strengthened to the extent that the political parties and candidates are bound to abide by the rules and regulations of EC. With the upcoming parliamentary election knocking at the door, it is expected that the EC would be sturdy enough to compel the political parties to conform to the RPO. The EC should consider stern action against the political parties and candidates if anomalies are found in their submitted reports of electoral expenses. Ironically, at a time when the incumbent government was trying its best to convince the opposition that it had made the EC strong and independent enough to hold a free and fair parliamentary election without the installation of the caretaker government, some impressions have been created to the contrary.
The writer is a researcher with the Institute of Governance Studies (IGS), BRAC University.