Published on 06 Sep 2012 at 12:19
Today, there is no country in the world that completely lacks regulations on how money can be used in relation to election campaigns or politics in general (although in some countries this is limited to a ban on vote buying or on abuse of state resources in election campaigns).
However, this was not always the case. Many former colonies created few or no regulations on this issue after independence, with the first rules being put in place after the wave of democratization in the 1980s and 1990s (in Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe and Latin America). In some places the first rules are even newer than that, and a few countries in the Middle East and North Africa are currently introducing the first ever rules on these issues as a result of the recent “Arab Spring”.
There are also old democracies that have only recently introduced rules on campaign finance (Iceland and Finland are some examples of this), while some democracies still fight against the introduction of detailed rules (such as Sweden and Austria).
There are however some countries that have experimented with political finance regulations for a fairly long period. Three examples to be discussed here are the United Kingdom, the United States and a group of Latin American countries (Uruguay, Argentina and Costa Rica). These have all in some ways led the way regarding the regulation of money in the political systems (which does not necessarily mean that the system they use today are better than those in other countries).
In the United Kingdom, the first campaign spending limits were introduced in 1883. This was through the Corrupt Practices Act introduced by the Prime Minister William Gladstone. This law not only limited spending during election campaigns; it also banned activities such as the buying of food or drink for voters and limited the number of carriages that could be used to transport voters to the polling stations (note that only a limited number of people had the right to vote at that time, excluding all women and a majority of men).
This was however not the first rules to deal with political finance in the UK - legislation dating back to 1868 regulated electoral petitions relating to fraud, including vote buying, and as early as 1695 the first Corrupt Practices Act provided certain definition of corruption as related to elections. These laws did not fully remove campaign finance problems in the UK, as recent developments have shown (the current regulatory framework in the UK is a result of reforms dating back around ten years).
The first regulations on campaign finance also came in the United States in the 19th Century. Perhaps the first rule was a ban on election candidates forcing harbour workers to support them financially, introduced in 1867 through the Navy Appropriations Bill. A similar rule was introduced regarding all government employees in 1883.
The first main step in this area was taken through the Tillman Act in 1907, which banned direct campaign contributions from private companies (an issue that would be at the centre of attention again over 100 years later when the US Supreme Court reduced restrictions on corporate donations through the so-called Citizens United Ruling).
A number of additional laws were created in the 1920s to the 1940s, aimed at a phenomenon that when discussed in relation to many emerging democracies today is described as clientelistism (or neo-patrimonialism of you prefer), but which in the US at that time was known as “bossism”(since politics was run by “bosses” with close connections to criminal networks). Another big change in the regulatory system came as a result of the Watergate scandal in the 1970s (including the creation of the Federal Election Commission).
The Latin American countries mentioned in the introduction led the way regarding one particular form of political finance regulation, namely the use of financial support from the state to political parties. It is generally held that Uruguay started this general trend in 1928, followed by Costa Rica and Argentina in the 1950s. Not until 1959 was this type of assistance used in Europe, in what was then West Germany (the year after it was also introduced in Norway).
In contrast, direct public funding was not introduced in the United Kingdom until 1975, just two years before Nigeria. Also Venezuela and Nicaragua introduced public funding of political parties before the UK, with Mexico and Ecuador following soon afterwards.
Political finance regulations must be adjusted over time so that they are suited to the particular situation in each country at each point in time. This is clearly shown by the examples of countries that have been working with this issue for centuries. In this way, that some countries have started regulating these issues later than others does not necessarily place them at a great disadvantage.
The main difference lies often in how upset people become when they find out that financial rules (legal or societal) have been broken. Establishing a popular culture of rejecting political finance corruption is more a matter of building national citizenship than it is about formal regulations.
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