Access to politics: Cost as a barrier

Encouraging broader political participation has been a cornerstone of international democracy support since its early days.

This has involved working to reduce barriers to entry to politics often based on gender, age, ethnicity, and other contextual factors. Over the past decade, however, an emergent barrier that has received less attention is the cost of politics.

The more expensive a political system is, the less accessible it becomes, and therefore the less representative and accountable. And the global evidence suggests that the costs for individuals moving from private life to public office are increasing, sometimes substantially. This means those with limited access to resources, such as the poor and many women and youth, cannot participate in the political process.

Moreover, in a country where the cost of politics is high, candidates pay large amounts of money in exchange for their constituents’ support and, in many cases, incur great amounts of debt to cover their expenses. Once in office, many will be tempted to take advantage of their access to state resources to pay their debts and, eventually, to finance their reelection – thus spiraling a vicious cycle of corruption.

To address the problem of the increasing cost of politics, countries need to examine their political systems and bring about the necessary changes through cross-party consensus. This is unlikely to happen unless stakeholders find means to break the pattern of incentives for candidates to spend vast amounts of money to get elected and maintain their seats once in office.

Given the detrimental consequences a high cost of politics can have on the democratic development of a country, WFD wants to contribute to addressing this problem through a three-staged approach:

  1. Conducting robust research on the drivers of the increasing cost of politics and encouraging dialogue among relevant stakeholders to discuss findings and conclusions
  2. Supporting multiple cross-party working groups to agree on what changes can be made in the political system to create greater affordability, transparency and accountability
  3. Providing flexible support to political parties, parliaments and executive bodies in the implementation of reforms necessary to address the causes of the increasing cost of politics
(Photo: Campaigning for President Magufuli’s 2015 win in Tanzania)

WFD is currently working on the first stage of this long-term strategy. After doing background studies in 2016 on the cost of politics in Ghana, Nigeria, Uganda, Kyrgyzstan, Macedonia, and Ukraine, WFD is now conducting a six-month long primary research study on the cost of politics in Ghana.

WFD is implementing this project with funding from DFID’s Strengthening Action Against Corruption (STAAC) Initiative and with the assistance of the Ghana Center for Democratic Development (CDD). The study seeks to understand how the incentives and constraints that shape the behavior of constituents, political parties, candidates, and sitting MPs in Ghana before, during and after election periods can help explain the increase in the cost of politics in the country and inform strategies to develop a more affordable and accountable political system.

The research study will include survey questionnaires with 300 parliamentary candidates, both successful and unsuccessful, as well as key-informant interviews with political party representatives, traditional chiefs, and members of civil society. By interviewing a wide array of stakeholders, WFD seeks to gain a comprehensive understanding of the dynamics of Ghana’s political system.

The study will be completed by July 2017. Its findings and conclusions will inform a national dialogue conference that will bring together stakeholders to discuss the implications of the increasing cost of politics to the development of Ghanaian democracy and to seek a consensus on how to change the pattern of incentives that is currently driving up costs.

This research study is the first comprehensive in-depth assessment of the cost of participating in politics conducted in Ghana. WFD hopes to replicate it in other countries and eventually draw conclusions that can improve the donor’s community understanding of political incentives and inform future programming on democracy strengthening.

More information on our Cost of Politics research is available here

(Top photo: A women casts her vote in the Ghanaian Presidential elections in December 2016)

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