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The cost to democracy

  • Published at 01:16 am April 18th, 2019
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A lack of accountability MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU

There needs to be more transparency in elections

Election watchers that keep an eye on expenditures relating to the polls have a more friendly experience in the developed world. Hence, they can say that the US presidential election cost $6.5 billion dollars -- money that came from (and is declared in income tax returns) businesses and individual contribution. 

Donald Trump’s astonishing ability, through protocol-breaking comments, was what drew free media coverage and reduced his overall spend. Businesses supporting him looked to favourable regulatory decisions as a return, and he hasn’t disappointed them with the sanctions and tariffs that he has dished out left right and centre. 

India also created a first -- the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party issued election bonds to raise a cool $150m. According to reports, election expenditure will increase from $5bn in 2014 to double the amount this year. Again, most of the money will come from businesses, many owned by those who are participating. The return to businesses is expected from regulatory decisions. And again, as is usual with elections in this part of the world, it means cash, alcohol, and a whole array of hand-outs.

The Election Commission in India has ruled against the Narendra Modi biopic being released even on the internet, saying it provides unfair exposure, but there’s not much it can do about the freebies being handed out.

With a country as big as India and with 900 million voters, that isn’t surprising. It isn’t surprising, therefore, that no major business has been fined or taken to task even though one of the Ambani brothers has been ordered to either pay up or suffer imprisonment for breaking the law.

Moreover, there are no specific laws regarding individual contributions to electioneering funds.

Bangladesh is far worse in all of this. TIN holders don’t  file their returns, let alone reveal any money donated to electioneering. Parties’ expense returns are never audited, and nobody checks whether candidates stick to their affixed election expense ceilings (that no one else believes in, to begin with).

The only certain income from parties is the media reports on intending candidates’ payment for nomination papers that are quite significant. In the years ahead, if transparency is to be ensured, this needs to be addressed. It goes without saying that if an individual spends a huge amount in election expenses, he or she will seek ways of recovering that one way or the other.

The cost of running our elections is roughly Tk732 crore. However, to date, our Election Commission has never acted to question the electioneering or political parties’ expenses, and that increases scepticism.

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.