The Cost of Politics: From selection to election

(Above: Rushanara Ali, MP and Vice-Chair of WFD’s Board of Governors, moderates the first panel of the day with the authors of the case studies in Macedonia (Gordan Georgiev) and Nigeria (Adebowale Olorunmola).)

On Monday July 18th WFD launched new research into the cost of parliamentary politics, exploring six case studies assessing the situation in Macedonia, Ukraine, Kyrgyzstan, Ghana, Uganda and Nigeria.

“How do we make politics more affordable?” was the central question being asked by George Kunnath, WFD’s Regional Director for Africa and Europe, at our conference exploring the increasing cost of politics.

Take Ghana. As George explained, “people have done the numbers and realised it is not worthwhile for them to get into politics” – especially when an MP is compelled to spend £750 a month supporting funerals in their communities. These associated costs mean political life is intrinsically linked to corrupt practice, whether through securing re-election through the exploitation of state resources or the increased power that comes with the role.

Our new research project explores the whole cycle faced by candidates – from getting nominated to fighting the campaign and maintaining a parliamentary seat – and what associated costs individuals face at each stage of this journey.

Getting nominated – how to get on the ballot?

Gordan Georgiev, former MP in Macedonia and author of the research into the cost of politics case study, explained the crucial role that political parties play in the selection process for candidates.

“Getting on the ballot has certain costs,” he explained. “Some are typical, some are pretty innovative and some are surprising” – like the 30,000-80,000 euro cost to change your party membership, or the ability to buy 100,000 votes for ten million euros. This climate, Gordan argued, is responsible for the lowest levels of trust in politicians across Europe to date.

Adebowale Olorunmola, author of the Nigerian case study, said trust is also an issue in Nigeria. He pointed to the “gulf between the parties and people” that currently exists. It’s a gulf created in part by the huge costs associated with selection, but also by the motivations of current politicians who “get into political office to serve personal interests, leaving well-intentioned citizens, with ideas to move society forward, without access”. In Nigeria, to simply get on the ballot paper you must pay an initial 25 million naira fee (approximately £64,000).

(Above, left to right: Lisa Klein, formerly of UK Electoral Commission, Jamie Hitchen, Africa Research Insitute and WFD’s Director of Research Graeme Ramshaw)

Fighting the campaign

With the initial costs of getting on the ballot being so high, it’s equally – if not more – damaging that the expected levels of spending associated with running a campaign are also excessive.

Campaigning costs in Britain remain relatively low. “The UK is quite blessed to have an affordable political system,” George Kunnath explained in the opening address. Elsewhere, however, running a campaign can be so costly that it creates a barrier to access, as our second panel of the day found.

Jamie Hitchin, from the Africa Research Institute, drew on the recent Ugandan elections as an example, where “money trumps ideology” as the success factor for political parties. One hundred and seventy-five million US dollars were spent in Uganda by all parties in the run-up to the most recent presidential elections. This, Jamie added, was almost double the health budget in Uganda for 2015/16.

These high costs associated with running for office undeniably shape citizens’ perceptions of their representatives and what is expected of them – generating money for election, not improving public services for all.

Jamie added that the cost of politics and associated corruption is driven not just by politicians giving out money, but also by “citizens who are expecting to be given money” during a campaign. Changing this attitude is key to changing the associated cost of politics and making it more accessible.
The costs of sitting in Parliament

The challenge of raising the funds to run a successful campaign places huge pressure on elected representatives to recover some of their expenses when in office, either financially or through their patronage and privileges.

The cultural context and perceptions of the role of an MP emerged as a recurrent theme throughout the day. Emma Crew, Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, argued that the relationship between politicians and constituents is key to decreasing the cost of politics and making it more accessible. “By deepening democracy beyond parliament and strengthening civil society, including the capacity for research and scrutiny,” Emma suggested, will be vital to changing attitudes on what the role of a sitting politician is.

This anthropological approach was supported by Kojo Asante, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Democratic Development in Ghana, who acknowledged that “if you don’t understand why people carry on doing what they are doing” then change will be difficult to achieve.

He pointed to Ghana’s “interesting cultural sanctions”. MPs are expected to pay for office space, textbooks and funerals. If they do not, they risk forfeiting the community’s support when it comes to re-election. This shifts the focus, Kojo said, from governing and providing adequate services for constituents to “always preparing for the next election”.

(Above: Emma Crewe, Professorial Research Associate at SOAS, delivers a presentation about the anthropological elements that contribute to the cost of politics.)

Steps towards reform?

Attitudes, cultural practice and expectation clearly play such a fundamental role in shaping citizens’ expectations of parliaments – so addressing them, particularly within broader global anti-corruption reform efforts, should not be ignored.

Enforcement and regulation of party finance was a key theme throughout the day, but as Peter Wardle, former CEO of the UK Electoral Commission explained, this is not always enough. “You introduce rules, and people find a way to get around them,” he said, referring to his experience of introducing party finance legislation in the UK. “You can have the best rules in the world, the UK rules look good – but if you can’t enforce them they do not work.”

This is where parliaments can come in to help fight corruption at any level. “Parliaments are part of the solution rather than part of the problem,” Phil Mason, Senior Anti-Corruption Adviser at the Department for International Development, said. Something as simple as effective note-taking, like the UK’s Hansard, can go a long way to explaining “what those functions [of parliament] are, of educating people about the roles and functions of MPs and parliaments”.

Stephen Twigg, MP and Chair of the International Development Committee concluded that political parties – a major part of WFD’s work – are part of the solution too. “They can help get a range of people in to politics,” demonstrating how important WFD’s work with parliaments and political parties is in addressing corruption.

Following the UK anti-corruption summit in May, Britain is taking the lead on the global stage in addressing this issue. Now, thanks to this research project, the UK has opened up another avenue to explore change.

 

The six country case studies and synthesis report are available here. 

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