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Debate rages on funding of political parties

As Ghanaians prepare to go to the polls later this year, a serious debate is raging as to whether the state should fund political parties to ensure a level playing field.
Sam Sarpong

A recent visit made by officials of the Electoral Commission (EC) to some offices of the political parties in Ghana revealed very astonishing circumstances. Some had no offices at all and in places where there were supposed to be offices, no furniture or equipment could be seen in them. The findings did make a mockery of Ghana's supposed strides in democratic tenets and pluralism.

Some offices had been abandoned because of accumulated rent arrears. The largest opposition party, the National Democratic Congress, founded by ex-President Jerry Rawlings, has had a number of its offices taken over by landlords after its election defeat. This follows the party's inability to pay its rent.

After the last presidential and parliamentary elections in 2000, some of the buildings, which operated as offices or the political parties, reverted to their previous status of private residential or business shelters. Others too have become subjects of protracted rent impasse at rent tribunals throughout the country.

The EC rules stipulate that political parties should have a national spread with physical presence in the form of functional offices in all constituencies but the situation on the ground suggests otherwise. There is no single party, which meets this requirement. Even all the parties tend to default in submitting their quarterly financial reports to the EC.

Under Ghana's electoral laws, the EC can proscribe parties which violate its laws but it is difficult for the EC to apply any sanctions since the problem cuts across all the parties.

In the wake of all these have come concerns regarding the need to provide all political parties with an even playing field. This, undoubtedly, is seen as crucial for the deepening of the democratic dispensation in the country.

Chairman of the Electoral Commission, Dr Kwadwo Afari-Gyan says ample evidence on the ground suggests that beyond contesting elections, political parties are unable to carry out other meaningful activities entirely from their own resources.

"This has been the reason for the quest for more substantial public support for the activities of the political parties", he says.

Whilst the EC Chairman uses the vague term, 'public support', it is evident that the commission thinks state funding is imperative in these circumstances.

Perhaps quite unsure of the commission's position, the Attorney General and Minister for Justice, Papa Owusu-Ankomah recently called for a clarification of the debate on the funding of political parties stressing, "it does not necessarily mean state funding."

That is certainly not the understanding of government, according to Owusu-Ankomah. He, however, stated that if it were the contention of Ghanaians that political parties should be funded by the state, the government would definitely look into that.

However, a series of consultative fora on financing political parties and the electoral process held under the auspices of the commission, in August, last year, urged the government to package a suitable formula for public sector funding of political parties and sustainable funding of the electoral process.

The participants proposed the establishment of a Political Parties Fund backed by legislation to support political party activities in the country. They urged the state to provide the seed money and annual budgetary support for the fund, which they suggested, should be managed and operated by the Electoral Commission.

The debate has now been upped with calls on the state to fund the parties and provide the necessary resources to ensure an electoral process in which people will have confidence.

But this whole idea has not won the support of vibrant groups like the National Union of Ghana Students (NUGS) and the influential Center for Democratic Development (CDD) a political think tank.

NUGS believes any money for such a purpose should be channeled into improving educational facilities, while the CDD's Executive Director, Dr. Gyima Boadi is of the opinion that state funding is only an euphemism for providing an unemployment benefit and pension for some unemployed politicians and retirees.

But the arguments have not been narrowed down to the corridors of the intellectuals. Most ordinary people are very wary of politicians in the country. "Ghana would be setting a dangerous precedent if it proceeded with this suggestion to fund political parties", says Kofi Richardson, a civil servant.

"She can ill afford to take on the additional responsibility of funding the political parties without seriously undermining and short changing the needs in the educational, health and social sectors", he stressed.

"It would even aggravate the economic difficulties of the country," argues Boadi of the CDD.

State funding of political parties remains a controversial issue, which has generated heated debates in Ghana because of the added implication that it represents taxpayer's funding.

The other argument is that, nurturing and developing the country's infant democracy is part of the essentials necessary for laying the basis for Ghana's strive into the middle-income brackets, and definitely that would come at a cost. And besides, the economy should support the essentials that are necessary for its growth, including a vibrant democracy.

Even among those advocating for state funding, there is disagreement on the form of assistance that should be made available.

It has been suggested that for political parties to deserve some support, they should demonstrate that they could be 'all-year-round parties' and not 'election parties,' whereupon they fold up after elections only to resurface when election looms.

Then there is the added question of whether such support should come in the form of monetary or rather logistic support as in the form of offices, furniture, and equipment, among others.

There is also the fear that state funding of political parties would inevitably lead to proliferation of parties in the country. Ghana currently boasts of nine parties, some very inactive.

Another potential consequence of state funding of the parties, according to critics, would be to provide the ruling party, to the extent that it manages the disbursement of public funds, with a powerful tool for controlling the other parties.

In Ghana, political donations are largely unregulated and their sources of funds are largely not scrutinised. If state funding should be carried out from the national budget, then a procedure that would be fool-proof would have to be adopted to avoid a situation where politicians can easily take undue advantage of the system.

Besides, political parties must be ready to open themselves up for public scrutiny if they subscribe to the idea of the state supporting their activities.

There is a general desire that the electorate should have an even opportunity to make informed choices between competing parties and programmes, but this cannot be ensured if there are uneven playing fields. Significantly, it is the act of balancing this equation that remains elusive, at least, for now.

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