Cost of politics Q&A: How do we make political systems affordable?

Ahead of 18 July’s #CostOfPolitics conference, WFD’s Europe and Africa Regional Director George Kunnath has been explaining his approach to this emerging problem – and explaining how we’ll explore it next month.

When and where did you first identify the cost of politics as an important issue that needed more attention?

The first time I started to think about this was several years back in Ukraine, when it became very obvious to me that the majority either came from wealth or was linked to wealth. It was just impossible for an average person to ever make their way into the Ukrainian Parliament, which was affecting its legitimacy. By 2009 the Verkhovna Rada was seen as a place where wealthy people bought positions so as to acquire immunity. The disruption of Maidan reflected this frustration. I slowly began to realise that when the cost of buying your way into politics begins to exclude or marginalise the majority of citizens, it becomes counterproductive to democracy and affected the parliamentary culture within a country.

This issue isn’t just confined to Ukraine, though. You must have realised quickly the cost of politics had similar effects elsewhere.

The countries where this really spoke to me next were Uganda, Ghana and Nigeria. The context is different in each, but the impact of the rising cost of politics on the incentives which drive MPs was becoming increasingly clear in all of them. What we were starting to see was the linkage between the cost of politics and the behaviour of MPs. As the cost of politics increases, the behaviour of the MPs changes as they seek to recoup their initial investment.

How can you prove this is the case, though?

WFD has commissioned six case studies examining the situation in the four countries mentioned so far, plus Georgia and Kyrgyzstan. We’re seeking to establish the reality – whether there’s any degree of evidence which underpins what so far has just been a hunch. We’re aware that our case studies don’t provide the depth of research one would want as definitive proof. But maybe they are a step towards a discussion and debate which could prompt much more in-depth research. These case studies give us an idea of what the drivers of the costs are and the sources of funding. They will help frame the direction of subsequent in-depth studies.

How will we discuss these issues in the Cost of Politics conference on 18 July?

What we’ve decided to do is structure the conference around three key areas that are emerging from the case studies.

One of them deals with political parties’ internal governance – how parties are using things like primaries as a means to fleece their members in order to build up war chests. In some instances the primaries are becoming as expensive as the election.

Party financing is a big issue. It needs to be discussed, and openly. It matters to WFD because future programming cannot happen without understanding what’s happening with the parties.

The second area of focus is around the rising costs of campaigning and access to the media during election campaigns. This is an area where innovation can help. Some of the lessons from the UK, which holds elections at a fraction of the price of countries like the US, could be pertinent here.

The third area will focus on the ‘fourth role of an MP’. What is becoming evident is that there is a growing demand, especially in third-world countries, for MPs to provide welfare assistance to their communities paying for funerals, weddings, school fees etc. Normally in the developed world, the state provides welfare support. In the developing world people have tried to find mechanisms such as constituency development funds to try and alleviate the burden this places on MPs but with this has come a range of accountability challenges. We need to discuss this openly, recognise it, and think how best parliaments can work with MPs to address citizens’ often unrealistic expectations. In some cases, MPs do not want to visit their constituencies because they know they will struggle to meet their supporters’ expectations.

Once we have explored these three areas, we will hold a discussion about how the UK can respond to these challenges, and what best practice can be shared.

Tickets are still available, of course.

But they’re running out, so you’d better get yours booked quick.

What’s different about this approach? Isn’t political financing an issue which has already received a lot of attention?

Much political finance work is focused on the electoral process. Our approach to cost of politics is different in the sense that we’re looking at the impact of finances from the perspective of an individual’s entry into public life. The costs associated with this throughout his or her term in office is what matters, not just the costs at elections time.

It’s about applying the logic of an investment approach to a political career. Politicians spend so much to gain a position held for five years; they either end that period with a net gain or net loss. If it’s a net gain, a political career becomes attractive; in some cases if the perception is that politics is rewarding it could lead to increased competition for the wrong reasons. If this is a net loss, many people will be discouraged from entering politics. Our methodology is to ask not just those who have succeeded in this, but also those who have failed to win elections too. We are asking those who are leaving parliament and not returning to contribute. These veterans, of course, have less to lose in being open and honest about the costs of their political career.

Why should organisations committed to democracy-strengthening care about the cost of politics?

I’m a strong believer in conducting effective political economy analysis, because we need to understand the politics around the work that we do. Because our work is political, it is most successful when there is political will – a factor commonly driven by incentives. What we’re learning is that a lot of these incentives are set well in advance and the cost of politics plays an important role in determining the incentives.

This sounds very relevant to the current focus on tackling corruption following the UK Prime Minister’s London Summit on the issue in May 2016.

Often people talk about the link between political finance, the cost of politics and corruption. But we need to avoid an approach that this is about fighting corruption. Instead this is all about developing political systems that are affordable. By making political systems affordable, the need for corrupt practices is reduced. The spirit of our work and the spirit of our conference on July 18th is to try and help countries develop affordable political systems which mean that anyone can enter politics. I do believe most people enter politics for noble reasons, but the reality of the environment forces them down the path of corruption.

What can Westminster Foundation for Democracy offer to assist in this work?

We are uniquely placed to work with political parties and parliaments to openly and transparently help bring around change.

The factors driving corruption are set well in advance, right there at the beginning with the cost of politics.

If you don’t address this issue, when politicians do come to power they will find ways around the system. That’s the reality. So what we want to do is motivate donors, politicians and everyone else to invest in the harder problem of dealing with the root causes. We want to encourage donors to invest in innovative, sensitive and politically smart projects which can help address these issues. Yes, these are complex and very sensitive issues, but it will be worth it.

Finally, you were in Prague in April for the launch of the Political Financing Community of Practice. What were your impressions?

I think IFES did a great job in convening the community of practice. WFD hopes to host the next meeting of the community following the cost of politics conference. What we need to recognise is that the issues of political financing are many and partners have to work together to have a positive impact. The community of practice is a great way to share knowledge and experiences. We also need to recognise that each country is different and would require a different approach but if we understand each other’s strengths we could all work together to find solutions.

 

 

Photo: Thomas: Coins 

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