Civil Society, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

Q&A: "When There’s Corruption, All Votes Are Not Equal"

Daniela Estrada interviews ANDREA SANHUEZA, Chilean activist

SANTIAGO, Oct 13 2008 (IPS) - "In Chile, like in other countries, there is very little transparency when it comes to political funding," Andrea Sanhueza, executive director of the Chilean non-governmental organisation Corporación Participa, said in an interview ahead of the Oct. 26 municipal elections.

Andrea Sanhueza Credit: Courtesy of Corporación Participa

Andrea Sanhueza Credit: Courtesy of Corporación Participa

Corporación Participa launched a novel initiative in August aimed at finding out who was financing the campaigns of the candidates running in the municipal elections in two of the country’s northern regions, Arica-Parinacota and Coquimbo.

The initiative consists of asking candidates to the city council and different local, national and multinational companies to sign "Integrity Pacts".

The idea is that the candidates who sign the Pacts will voluntarily disclose, prior to the elections, the names of the companies that contributed to their campaign and how much they contributed. Companies, for their part, would indicate whose campaigns they were funding.

But "we haven’t had much luck," Sanhueza, a social worker with a master’s degree in human settlements and environmental studies, told IPS. "The candidates and companies schedule meetings, only to cancel them; they say it could be a good idea, but they don’t follow through."

"We probably won’t be able to secure any pacts with companies, but we’re confident we will with several candidates, who have so far given us their word," said Sanhueza, who also coordinates the work of Corporación Participa in the Inter-American Democracy Network and The Access Initiative.

Sanhueza calls the law that imposes transparency, limits and controls on campaign spending "weak." The law – in force since the 2004 municipal elections – establishes that the state has an obligation to provide funding for campaigns, and divides private donations into three categories: anonymous, reserved, and public.

Anonymous donations are the smallest contributions, which the candidate is required to disclose to the Electoral Service (Servel), but without having to specify their origin. Reserved donations are medium-sized contributions made by private parties without making themselves known to the recipient candidates. Public donations are the only contributions that are individualised, and they correspond to the largest sums that can be contributed.

"Candidates render accounts 30 days after the election. Servel takes 30 days, which can be extended for another 60 days, to review their accounts. Only then – 90 days after the elections – can constituents learn what public donations their candidates received," Sanhueza notes.

IPS: How was the idea for the Integrity Pacts born? ANDREA SANHUEZA: The idea arose because in Chile, like in other countries, there is very little transparency when it comes to political funding. When I say little transparency, I mean highly limited access to information.

There is no timely, easy-to-access, or straightforward information available. If tomorrow you want to find out who donated what to any given candidate, it’s going to cost you a lot and you’re going to learn very little.

It’s important to have transparency in this area to prevent illegal acts, like making donations to a candidate with the intention of later obtaining something in return, a favour such as a position, contract, legislative amendment or law. That’s called corruption.

When there’s corruption in political financing, all votes are not equal. If I give you money, and you are elected, then you owe me a favour. I’m probably a member of the elite, after all, I gave you money, so my vote will mean more to you and my interests will be more important than, say, those of the district you represent.

IPS: What do you think of the anonymous and reserved funding mechanism? AS: All funding for political campaigns must be public knowledge, and it must be disclosed before the election takes place, because in a democracy it is essential to promote an informed vote. You have the right to know if your candidate is being financed by a mining company, a salmon company, or any other company. If you don’t like how a productive sector is operating, you can tell your candidate: "You should not be accepting funds from that source."

If the candidate is elected using that money, you can later see what kind of projects he or she approves, who he or she awards contracts to. That’s called exercising citizen oversight, which is another essential aspect of democracy: citizens being able to monitor and oversee their authorities.

IPS: What are the other components of the Integrity Pacts? AS: We went to see the local Steering Committee of the Global Compact, a United Nations initiative aimed at promoting corporate social responsibility. Thirty-seven national and transnational companies are participating in the Global Compact in Chile.

One of the principles of the Global Compact is that businesses must vow to work against corruption in all its forms. In view of that principle, we presented our project to the Steering Committee, suggesting that it could be a chance for companies to say: "we are willing to act on our word." But we didn’t have much luck.

What they told us is that the Integrity Pact "is a political issue and we don’t interfere in politics. Besides, the Global Compact in Chile has very participating few companies."

IPS: What does the fact that you’re not having much luck with the Integrity Pact say to you? AS: We all know that the hardest thing to do is precisely finding out who finances election campaigns. Chile has been moving forward in terms of achieving transparency; we all know corruption exists, that it has to be reported, and that the way to combat it is by giving everyone easy access to information. That’s what we need to do.

The more information that is available and understandable to all, the more difficult it will be to cheat. The incentives for acting illegally will be reduced. But there are a lot of powerful interests at play here. There’s a reason why the law is weak. Who passed it? The same politicians who are members of the lower house today and who will be running for the Senate tomorrow, and later for mayor, or for president…

IPS: What is your opinion of the new laws and reforms underway? AS: The (recently enacted) public information access act is a huge step forward, but it has important weak points, such as the fact that it only applies to the executive branch, bypassing the legislative and judicial branches, which is unbelievable.

The government’s recommendations for reforming the campaign financing law are also considerably weak. They were brought on by the scandal that tainted the last parliamentary election, when fake invoices were presented to justify the use of public monies. Some recommendations are good, but they do nothing to improve the issue of transparency in funding. That makes them not very relevant.

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