Institutional framework is flawed to allow for state funding of Political Parties

Liberia is indeed an interesting place. We have a country where there is no short supply of intrigues and there seems to an unending indulgence in ornamental contradictions.Suddenly, every time there appears to be bliss about actions and decisions which are not thought through in terms of the greater good of the country. Over the last week, the news of the passage of the so-called democracy sustenance bill passed by the House of Representatives has been a sortofpyromaniac which has ignited a wild fire that consumed vital spaces inthe publicand media arenas.

The backlashes from the public, political commentators and civil society actors speak volumes that the ink should not be allowed to get dried for those who are by their conscious or unconscious acts want to make a mockery of our people. The outcry suggests we have again arrived at crossroads of decision making that borders on what the priorities of Lawmakers at the level of the House of Representatives are; those to whom stewardship of our resources has been entrusted. Are the lawmakers answerable to the people who elected them, or they are simply so idiosyncratic in what perpetuates the status quo? There can be no justification to legitimize a cartel through which millions of state funds will be siphoned by a few individuals under the pretext of supporting political parties.

  As a former employee of the National Elections Commission (NEC), I was part of a consultative process which advanced the need for political parties to receive state funding as part of a broader electoral reform construct. The idea came on the heels of series of consultative meetings first in Gbarnga in June 2007, then to the St.

Theresa Convent and then the Buchanan conference in 2007 which culminated in the establishment of the Special Joint Stakeholders Consultative Committee (SJSCC). There was a litany of issues at the epic center of the consultations. But key amongst the proposal for reform was the boundary harmonization to set the pace forthe holding of municipal and chieftaincy elections. At the time,funding of parties wasthe most lowered amongst the plethora of issues. I.e. it was not a primary issue in the order of priorities of reforms to be undertaken in the electoral system.

 I am taken aback to observe that more pressing and important items on the shopping list of reform are circumscribed to the funding of political parties. The bill which was passed with rocket speed by the House of Representatives under the theory of a democracy sustenance bill is nothing but a prologue to a farce and amounts to another attempt to siphon state resources in broad light.

Let's put first thing first. I believe strongly that in the absence of a structured framework and with the presence of a notoriously flawed institutional system, the funding of party is a mere joke that has no resonance with an act of a reasonable mind. 

The reform of the electoral system must be treated in the order of importance. The first attempt should be to reconsider the mechanism through which the Commission is constituted; the tenure and shield clause for Commissioners. The legal framework as we have extensively discussed; and following best practices need to be such that we squash the current appointment of Commissionersby the President and nomination of Commissioners should instead be madeby political partiesthrough a public vetting process; and secondly, there has  to be a security of tenure for Commissioners equivalent to judges, or  Associate Justices of the Supreme Court; and thirdly, a well-defined financial autonomy to the Commission would contribute to enhance the independence, credibility and lubricate the turbans of the NEC as that vital engine that would lead the country toward the buildingof a vibrant democracy.

I am speaking here of true democracy and not a seemingly gangster state. It is a democracy in which the Representatives and Senatorsare remorseful and do not allocate to themselves unrestrained power to swell up their pockets every budget year. Invariably, the gluttony exhibited by 53rdLegislators surpasses any parliament on planet earth.

The sheer arrogance and insensitivity demonstratedin allocating unto themselves ridiculous sums of public money in the national budget to the exclusion of  those who are the real foundation of stability and peace- the messengers, the office boys and girls,  the secretaries, the technicians and other civil servants accentuate  the  disconnect  between the elected and  the electors. The 2012/2013 budget does not show their connectedness to the electorate, it unravels that the lawmakers are not properly centered as far as the interest of the citizens is concerned. 

House Speaker Alex Tyler

This is a shameful disregard for acceptable practices in a representative democracy where lawmakers should be the voice of the ostracized, the vulnerable and the common people are caught in an incessant greed and pillaging of state resources. If a democracy cannot reap dividends for the people, through health care, affordable housing, good roads, better educational facilities, pipe borne water, public electricity and sustainable income, they would begin to seek the alternative, and God knows our people would never prefer authoritarianism.

This is the imperative debate that lawmakers should reflect on as they make the decision to allocate a single penny of tax payers' money to themselves. In theabsence of embedding the interest of the people at the epic center of the decisions, our lawmakers are shoving themselves to the dark side ofhistoryand are gradually losing their place as being that bulwark against the wanton neglectof the common people and have positioned themselves as a self-seeking cadre.

With this backdrop, the passage of the so-called political party sustenance bill with that unprecedented speed by the House of Representatives is a laughable attempt to dish out state money to political parties without studying the implications of such law in a convoluted political landscape. The day on which it was passed was a sad day for the country.  To put the matter squarely, the decision to pass such a bill in the face of more compelling national priorities, is untimely and improvident to say the least. 

It further gives currency to the argument that we have a cream of people at the level of the House of Representatives who are not forbearing enough to see and feel the daily pains and agonies that the man in the street endure to make ends meets.The funding of political partyshould be the last amongst more relevant reforms and should not be leveraged as a distinct subject.

The precursor to any funding billshould follow an order of priority:the restructuring of the appointment mechanism of commissioners, the shield clause for commissioners and financial autonomy, the passage of the Boundary Harmonization Act and the holding of municipaland chieftaincy elections.There are even debates about the need for constitutional amendment to reduce presidential and legislative tenures of office which should have all being embedded in the package toward the effort of electoral and democratic reforms in Liberia.

In the absence of addressing these plethora of pressing radical reforms that need to be made within electoral system of Liberia,the existing structuraldefects, rentseeking behavior, the corruption rings that parties are buckled in, and with some parties seemingly being personal enterprises of their founders, there currently exists no institutional framework to make such move of dishing out public money.

Any attempt to do so in the face of competing priorities, would open a swell of resentment in public circles. It further exposes the extravagance of the Members of the House of Representatives; and I believe the House of Senate and the President will not give their approbation when the bill reaches them. For to even countenance the passage of such a bill at this time, is a wanton disregard for the expeditious use of public money and clearly accentuates the abuse, waste and theft of public funds which has become unprecedentedly widespread. 

The frontier of the debate needs to be widened and the views of knowledgeable actors and experts be incorporated to generate as much inputs on the subject. As I have argued before, state funding of political parties is a new trend in the industry as part of the construct to strengthen infant democracies. However, there are two strands of the argument. One strand posits thatpolitical parties alone are not responsible for building vibrant democracy; hence support should inculcate civil society organizations as well toward the building of viable institutions. 

The other strand extrapolates that since political parties are the critical engines that drive electoral democracies, state funding should be confined to these actors provided that they are evidently institutionalized and such venture would not lead to waste of public money. Notable examples are found in South Africa, Sweden, etc. No matter which strand of the argument is employed, state funding cannot take place in unregulated terrains and in the absence of safeguards to ensure compliance with internationally acceptable practices. In short, there has to bea legal framework to serve as a bulwark against the plundering of public money by greedy politicians.

As a country, we cannot continue to trek on a path that sustains the hegemony and perpetuate the unending web in which afew have unrestricted access to state resources at the expense of the majority who continue to wallow in abject poverty. That is why the democracy sustenance bill needs to be shelved now until at such time it is well debated take on the appropriate contour which truly helps to cushion our democracy. If it stays in the manner in which it has been crafted, it will only serve the whims and caprices of Versace-wearing elites andcould be a recipe for fragility and a potential hub for future violent conflict. 

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