Fern Narcis-Scope, Chief Elections Officer, Elections and Boundaries Commission (EBC)

Story by Shaliza Hassanali

The recent intense six weeks of virtual election campaigning by the country’s two main political parties, the United National Congress (UNC) and the People’s National Movement (PNM), involved millions of dollars worth of television, radio, newspapers and social media advertisements. Huge sums were also spent on production and distribution of manifestos, sound systems, billboards, jerseys, flyers, music trucks and other campaign paraphernalia. Adding to the costs were giveaways of cash, household appliances, beds, mattresses and living room sets, all to win votes.

This level of expenditure went well beyond the $50,000 limit stipulated in the Representation of the People Act, the law that remains in effect as promised campaign finance legislation is still to be introduced.

The PNM had promised in their 2016 manifesto to draft, enact and implement appropriate campaign finance legislation but failed to deliver. Prime Minister Dr Keith Rowley presented legislation in Parliament in May but it had not even been debated when Parliament was dissolved in July. Instead, the bill was referred to a Joint Select Committee for consideration.

One of its key provisions is that election donations of more than $50,000 be publicly disclosed and the donors identified. In instances where a person, company or entity contributes to a registered political party or candidate more than $50,000, and, within two years before had entered into a Government contract worth more $2 million, the sum shall be declared to the EBC within 14 days after contributing.

There are also clauses covering state funding for political parties be entitled to state funding.

Commenting on the campaign strategies of the two main parties, political analyst Marlene George Mitchell said the UNC went too far with their unappealing advertisements and that led to their defeat at the polls. She said the PNM’s opening of new facilities, road paving and other infrastructural works did not work in their favour as voters considered these to be “political marketing” and “not the government at work.”

Mitchell, who lectures public sector management at the University of the West Indies and politics at ROYTEC, estimated that the two parties spent more $100 million in advertising alone.

“What we are not capturing in those figures is the paraphernalia that was given out which is also very costly,” she said.

The UNC invested in more full-page advertisements in the daily newspapers, while the PNM monopolised the television stations to get their message across, she said.

David Abdulah, political leader of the Movement for Social Justice (MSJ), said the party, which fielded five candidates, had a tight campaign budget.

“We worked with a shoestring budget. Some people made small contributions, we had to cut and contrive to make our finances work. That was part of the challenge we faced,” he said

Abdulah said MSJU candidates did not exceed the $50,000 spending limit.

He said: “It was a case of who had more corn would feed more fowl. The two traditional parties have big financiers and those financiers would expect when the party wins they get large contracts.”

Abdulah said it was wrong for the Government to highlight its performance in the height of an election. He described that as “unethical political behaviour that ought not to be done.”

The political leader of the New National Vision Fuad Abu Bakr described the $50,000 spending limit for candidates as “absurd.” He said it was difficult for his party to stay within that limit.

“We had to creatively bypass the rules by using other support groups to pay for certain things, to bypass the legislation so to speak. We may have spent more than the $50,000, so you could imagine the kind of money being spent overall. The rule itself of $50,000 is ridiculous and woeful. Nobody spends that small amount of money in an election,” he said.

Abu Bakr said it cost the party $11,500 for a 30-second radio advertisement aired six times a day over two weeks. Rental of a music truck for ten days cost another $35,000.

However, when he compared this year’s election bill for his six candidates to what the party spent in 2015, it was far less this time around.

“There is no free and fair elections. Elections are at a high cost. I don’t know where they got that kind of money from. I don’t know how they are going to pay back that kind of money,” he said.

Jack Warner, who contested the Lopinot/Bon Air West seat on an Independent Liberal Party (ILP) ticket, is still calculating what was spent on his campaign but said he was stingy with his spending.

Leader of National Coalition for Transformation Nalini Dial said she spent $9,000 on flyers, rental of a PA system and car, a few jerseys and a banner but that was $6,000 more for the last election she contested. Dial said she could not have competed with PNM’s Pennelope Beckles- Robinson.

“Surely millions of dollars went into this election campaign by the UNC and PNM. It was evident with the countless life-size billboards, banners, flags and flyers on display everywhere and music trucks that were hired. Not forgetting the jerseys and paraphernalia that were distributed to supporters. I honestly feel this money would have been put to better use like helping impoverished families,” she said.

Former People’s Empowerment Party (PEP) leader Phillip Alexander said his party stuck to a modest budget which they could account for. If each of PEP’s 28 candidates had put $50,000 towards their campaign, collectively they would have spent $1.4 million. He felt candidates who spent beyond the stipulated sum should be disqualified.

“You are going to tell me that we are going to elect people to sit in Parliament and reward them for breaking the law? Where did the money come from? We are talking about millions of dollars here,” he said.

Alexander said one PNM candidate rented a fleet of music trucks for the party’s final motorcade last Saturday and a variety of paraphernalia was handed out to supporters.

He said: “What we need is campaign finance enforcement.”

Alexander resigned as head of the PEP on Monday after the party was unsuccessful at the polls. Newly appointed leader Felicia Holder said the party hosted fundraising events and collected small donations for their campaign as they had “no deep pockets nor financiers.”Political advertising

Following the 2015 general election, the Advertising Agencies Association (AAA) estimated the advertising expenditure of political parties at $157 million. This was revealed by Lorraine Rostant who was president of the AAA at the time.

Of this figure, $112 million was spent by the United National Congress/People’s Partnership. Rostant said that price tag did not include payments made towards social media, political meetings, billboards, jerseys, flyers, giveaways and telemarketing.

Current AAA president Tony Inglefield could not say how much was spend in the recent campaign as the bill was still being counted.

Chief Election Officer Fern Narcis-Scope said while the law governs individual candidates’ expenditure “it does not regulate political party expenditure.” For this reason, the EBC has called for campaign finance reform to regulate the spending of all actors in the electoral system.

Narcis-Scope said when candidates submit their expenses to the EBC 48 days after an election it always falls within the limit of what the law allows.

“When the last administration laid amendments to our legislation we were so excited because one of the things in there is campaign finance reform and registration of political parties, something which this organisation has been agitating for many years. We were eager for the reform to take place so democracy in its fullest context could be experienced,” she said.

UNC PRO Anita Haynes said from a preliminary analysis the PNM spent far more on advertising than the main opposition party. “We have not gone in-depth with that just yet. Those things I think we ought to discuss as a nation going forward. We also have to assess how state resources were used in the facilitation of a campaign.” she said.

Haynes insisted that none of the 39 UNC candidates exceeded their expenditure.

Her PNM counterpart Laurel Lezama-Lee Sing said some candidates stayed below the $50,000 limit because the party ran a virtual campaign which did not require huge amounts of money. She rubbished Haynes’ claims that the PNM used state funds for its campaign.

“The Opposition is wild and ludicrous, as usual, because at this point, they are grasping at straws,” she said, although she could not say how much the PNM spent on campaigning this year.

Asked if the party’s spending had increased its election budget compared to 2015, Lezama-Lee Sing said: “I am almost certain it might have been reduced because of the type of campaign we had to run. But I do know that the $112 million the PP spent in 2015—the PNM is nowhere near that at all. What we had to give the people was love and a promise of good governance.”