State agencies no party donors

The debate over recent donations from public agencies to the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has rekindled calls for the just-tabled Political Parties Bill, which seeks to outlaw parties from receiving donations from State agencies. Our reporter AYAMI MKWANDA spoke to Centre for Multiparty Democracy (CMD) executive director KIZITO TENTHANI to unpack the proposed law.

Tenthani: It will be illegal for parties to accept donations from public institutions

As champions of the Bill proposing disclosure of party funding, is the proposed law strong enough to prevent political parties in power from receiving money from State agencies?

The Bill states that “A political party shall not be eligible to receive donations from State-owned corporations.” If it passes into law, political parties will not be allowed to solicit money and other favours from State corporations. State agencies will also not be allowed to give donations to political parties. This is not to suggest that these donations are allowed now. But the proposed law will make it explicit that these acts are prohibited. It follows, therefore, that if we had such a law, and assuming Malawians are indeed law-abiding, what is said to have happened in the recent past could not have happened. Or if it were to happen, there would have been consequences.

What cost is Malawi paying due to weak laws regulating party financing?

What ought to be understood is the rationale behind the proposed prohibition. Statutory corporations are public enterprises that are established through an Act of Parliament. Being ‘public’ means that they perform a social welfare function to protect the interests of the ‘common people’, especially in instances where, if such services were to be left whole to the private sector, the services would be out of the reach of many common people. Thus, whatever the statutory corporation does has to be defined by Parliament through the Act. Ordinary people, through their taxes, provide the capital for these public enterprises. If they run into financial problems—as is often the case in our country—it is the ordinary people, through their taxes, that bail them out. When they make profits, such profits have to be for the benefit of the public. The term public itself means that something has to affect or benefit the whole population, or community without the exclusion factor.

Why shouldn’t parties benefit from these funds?

A political party has that inherent exclusion factor, because direct beneficiaries are those that belong to that political party. By this definition, a political party is not wholly a public entity. At worst, they would be classified as semi public. Thus, in my view, they indeed should not be eligible to receiving donations from statutory bodies. Should we continue in this situation where the law is not clear, it would mean the chances of abuse and intimidation of State enterprises would continue. This discussion should not be limited to finances. We should also be thinking about other forms of abuse, including use of vehicles and other assets of State enterprises for party functions.

Once the Bill is enacted into law, will parties have liberty to lobby for finances as is the case in the US?

Currently, political parties are free to seek finances from private individuals and companies. As long as these are not State companies or agencies. The proposed Bill talks about disclosure of these donations if they go beyond a certain threshold, to enhance accountability.

Will the law forbid companies, institutions and organisations from funding political parties?

It has to be made clear that there is nothing wrong with private companies, institutions and organisation supporting political parties as long as this support is provided in a transparent manner. This is how civilised politics is done. So, there is no intention to forbid private donations. The proposed law encourages transparency, but certainly it intends to forbid public enterprises from engaging in partisan support.

How will this law help to level the playing field for political parties ahead of the 2019 Tripartite Elections?

This has nothing to do with the forthcoming elections or any election for that matter. It is about good practice. It is about stopping abuse of public resources. Having said that, there is of course a residual benefit of levelling the playing field. It is common knowledge that ruling parties always have unfair advantage and they would be the ones at the forefront in soliciting resources from public companies in the absence of laws prohibiting the act. Indirectly, this law will assist in levelling the playing field as no party will have an unfair advantage through the solicitation of support from public entities.

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