Money is often deemed an integral component of democracy as it enables political participation, campaigning, and representation. However, when money is not efficiently regulated, it endangers the integrity of both the political and electoral processes, it weakens institutions, and jeopardises the quality of democracy.
Lebanon is no exception to the rule. The dissection of the money-politics relation in the Lebanese context shows how entrenched corruption is in a system made of sophisticated networks of clientelist networks across both the public and private sectors whose sole purpose is to maximise private gains. As such, a sound enforcement of campaign finance regulations as initially envisioned by lawmakers is intertwined with an advanced global regulatory framework for political funding.
Corruption as a prevalent aspect of the political life
Whilst systemic corruption is hardly regulated through traditional means of campaign finance, maintaining integrity safeguards in financing elections and political parties could be the cornerstone of a competitive electoral process, a guarantor for a modern functioning democracy despite everything, when coupled with other well-grounded measures to control political financing and funding of political parties in the first place.
Looking at Lebanon’s scores across the indicators of integrity, transparency, and accountability would help experts in the field understand the interplay of the de jure and de facto realms of campaign finance in the country. For instance, the supervisory commissions which were first and foremost tasked with monitoring electoral spending have faced impeding challenges, ranging from the lack of will to the lack of effective support teams, manpower, and budget, which would enable efficient reinforcement of prerogatives and regulations alike.
The expediency of campaign finance regulations
The campaign financing system was introduced for the first time in the 2008 Parliamentary Election Law no. 25. The law established the Supervisory Commission on Elections Campaigns (Chapter 3, Article 11), whose prerogatives evolved around the regulation of campaign spending and the use of media; however, the commission was linked to the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, with the minister supervising its work, despite calls for its independence administratively and financially. At the time, the commission fell short on enforcing campaign spending regulations, either for limited capacities, or legal loopholes. For instance, while the law provided for advertisements’ audit by the commission, the latter could not make use of this competence.
In June 2017, Parliament passed Law no. 44, which brought about many changes on the campaign spending front. The introduced reforms reinforced the statute of the commission to a great extent, whose mission was no longer restricted to elections campaigns, but covered the whole electoral process, and was named as The Supervisory Commission on Elections (SCE) – rather than The Supervisory Commission on Elections Campaigns (SCEC). The commission had by then the opportunity to exert greater control in order to increase transparency of campaign finance and a great level of independence from the Ministry of Interior and Municipalities, with the exception of the election management roles which were retained by the latter. However, the SCE lacked the resources to audit the campaign finance reports submitted by candidates, as well as the power to enforce penalties for violations.
The definition of electoral spending as stipulated in the 25/2008 and 44/2017 laws is very restrictive, given that spending outside the campaign’s window is allowed, in addition to the law’s shortcomings in sanctioning cash distributions. Whilst the SCE has access to the candidates’ campaign accounts, it cannot audit the personal accounts of the candidates, through which most spending is processed as the Banking Secrecy Law that was not lifted for candidates as is the case with the campaign accounts.
While it stands true that the administrative and logistical constraints impeded the SCE’s operations, the commission needed four months to audit the reports submitted by candidates, let alone being faced by a staunch resistance of media outlets to provide the commission with the respective paid media advertisement data which should have been reported.
Private and public funding of political entities
The challenges, which both the SCEC and later on the SCE encountered, are entrenched in Lebanon’s political financing system. Private and public funding of political parties is often channelled via unrestrictive routes.
As listed by the Administration and Cost of Elections (ACE) project, the world’s largest online community and repository of electoral knowledge, the sources of private funding, namely subscriptions, donations by individuals or corporation, as well as contribution by supporters are never disclosed nor regulated as has been the case in Lebanon for a while, nor do they compare in amount and influence to foreign support and the use of public resources for sustained private gains.
For instance, funding by foreign sources and abuse of public sector or state resources outweigh private funding in influence and have avoided accountability and regulation for decades. These often take the form of vote buying, clientelism via public employment offered to constituents, as well as parastatal institutions meant to circumvent ministries and uphold voters’ freedom in exchange for services. Hence, most of the services offered to voters are largely unaccounted for, as the electoral laws exempt candidates from reporting on service delivery by an affiliated charity in the case where this service delivery has been ongoing and consistent for more than 3 years in a row prior to the election date.
As such, there is an urgent need to approve new laws, including bills that give the Constitutional Council more enforcement capacities which would enhance the transparency in reporting the sources and uses of said political funds. In that regard, the notion of transparency is codified in the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) which Lebanon joined in 2009, and calls on all countries to strive to “enhance transparency in the funding of candidatures for elected public office and, where applicable, the funding of political parties” (Article 7(3)).
Liberating Lebanon’s democracy and institutions from the influence of money should not be restricted to reforming the Electoral Law. This step should be complemented with other reforms and bills such as lifting banking secrecy on all candidates’ accounts as well as those of their family members, revisiting the political parties law which dates to 1909 (Law of Associations), amongst many others meant to reinforce the role of regulatory authorities as provided for in Lebanon’s Anti-Corruption Strategy 2020-2025, which are primarily intended to prevent grand legalised corruption, such as the appointment of civil servants, public procurement and allocation of public money. As such, monitoring the source and spending of political financing channelled to contenders, either through public funds or foreign support, is very critical.
Lebanon stands at a crossroads ahead of the upcoming parliamentary and municipal elections scheduled for 2022, following the promulgation of the national anti-corruption strategy that brought about serious plans for reform, which if applied, would set the ground for a healthier and better financing of the political life.
Disclaimer: The analysis, views and policy recommendations of this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations, including UNDP, or its Member States. The article is an independent piece commissioned by UNDP as a build up to the “Integrity Safeguards in Financing Elections and Political Parties” webinar organized in partnership with Executive Magazine.