The Digital Campaigning and Political Finance in the Asia and the Pacific Region report was launched on Tuesday 25 October 2022 at Melbourne Law School, University of Melbourne. International IDEA’s Secretary-General, Dr Kevin Casas-Zamora, delivered this speech during the event:
“Good afternoon and thank you so much to the commissioners, colleagues, partners and friends joining us here today. I also want to thank the Electoral Regulation Research Network and the University of Melbourne for both your hospitality and your collaboration.
I’m Kevin Casas-Zamora, and I am the Secretary-General of International IDEA, which as you may know is an intergovernmental organization, with 34 Member States, dedicated to supporting and advancing democracy globally. We have 19 offices around the world, including our Asia-Pacific Regional Office in Canberra, and we operate in more than 60 countries.
Our work combines knowledge production with capacity development, convening dialogues and policy advocacy. We have particular expertise in the areas of electoral and constitution-building processes, political participation and representation, and the assessment of quality and performance of democracies. One part of this work, and an area that is particularly close to my heart, is the topic of political finance.
I am a political scientist by training, and more specifically a student of political finance, a topic that I’ve researched and worked on wearing different hats throughout my professional career. So I’m very glad to be here today, as this event is both an intellectual homecoming and a testimony to the global, comparative, policy-oriented research that International IDEA is committed to producing.
As with other International IDEA products, the report that we will be presenting here today marries rigorous research with policy relevance. It puts global themes in a national and regional context. It faces complexity head-on, in this case by producing analysis and recommendations at the nexus of two critical challenges for democracy—digitalization and the regulation of the role of money in politics. And it is the product of collaboration, of reinforcing old relations and forging new ones. This is what we at International IDEA aspire to be: scholars, facilitators, advocates and partners.
In my remarks today, I want to do three things to help explain why I think this work is so valuable. First, I’ll outline why I think political finance is a key part of democratic health. Second, I’ll share some thoughts on how digitalization is making the study and regulation of political finance both more challenging and more important. And third, I’ll reflect on how digital campaigning may affect accessibility, equity and participation in democracies.
In some respects, political finance is unfairly maligned. Almost everywhere, the influence of money is blamed for the failures and shortcomings of politicians and political systems. Yet the truth is that money is a necessary component of any democracy. Money—both received and spent—enables political participation and representation. Money helps spread the voices and ideas that are the basis for democratic politics.
What is clear, however, is that money in politics must be regulated. Inadequately controlled funding of political parties and election campaigns is one of the most widely exploited entry points for narrow private interests to exert undue influence over politics.
Money can significantly distort the democratic process, moving us farther from the goal of equality among citizens and toward a situation where economic means dictate political ends. This in turn can cause lasting damage to the social contract. Citizens are quite adept at noticing when their governments fail to respect their rights and reflect their interests. And when citizens lose confidence that politicians are working to benefit them, this loss of trust can become a serious threat to democracy.
The need for political finance regulation is well recognized in the context of global anti-corruption efforts, as in the United Nations Convention against Corruption and the OECD Recommendations on Public Integrity. Corruption, it must be said, has become a pandemic of sorts, which is eating away at the legitimacy of democratic systems everywhere. And what is more serious is that we are not making much headway in the struggle against corruption and impunity for it. Here in Asia-Pacific, International IDEA’s Global State of Democracy reporting indicates next to no change in the region’s corruption performance over the past 30 years.
All this bestows the regulation of political finance with a sense of great urgency. The problem is that this is a fiendishly difficult business. In this region and globally, no democracy has managed to solve the thorny issues posed by the role of money in politics – not in Latin America where I come from, not in Africa, not in Europe, and not in Asia-Pacific. Most regulatory efforts enacted throughout the world have been undermined in practice, weakened first and foremost by a lack of effective enforcement. And by the sheer lack of transparency. Despite the abundance of regulation, in nearly all countries political finance remains democracy’s black box.
What’s more, it is a black box made darker by digital technologies that bring political messaging, campaigns, and money to citizens in new and more intimate ways. This is, as the report’s subtitle puts it, a new age for an old problem.
Over the last decade, many aspects of political finance—from fundraising to advertising to reporting and disclosure—have gone digital. Political parties and candidates are spending ever more money on online campaigning, which reaches more people at lower cost than traditional media.
And while regulatory frameworks were in many cases already insufficient for an analog world, the rise of digital politics is testing these frameworks to new extremes.
Anonymity permeates the Internet, making online revenues and expenditures harder to trace and turning political finance regulation into an exercise in chasing ghosts. Political finance obscured by digital shadows often accompanies and accelerates disinformation and polarization. The speed of opaque financial innovations consistently outpaces legislation. And most regulatory bodies lack the technical knowledge required to oversee political finance in a digital age.
This last point is important, because in some cases, knowledge can be the difference between digitalization as threat and digitalization as benefit. Take cryptocurrency for example. Depending on design, cryptocurrencies can produce payments that are either unattributable or perfectly traceable—the difference between stuffing cash in a brown envelope and tracking financial flows on an accountant’s ledger. The problem is not digitalization as such, but how it is used. And the choice to regulate it for the benefit of democracy is still ours to make, but it won’t happen automatically. We must recognize the dangers and act to counter them.
That is not to say that it is simple. Where political finance reform has not happened—and that is most places, most of the time—it is for the simple reason that it is hard, and often unrewarding. If regulation is bad or incomplete, it reinforces mistrust of politicians. If it is good and comprehensive, it almost inevitably yields a harvest of scandals. Political finance reformers may fail even when they succeed.
This is even more complex in an era of digitalization, because any regulation of this sphere carries the risk of encroaching on the immense benefits that the Internet has brought, particularly when it comes to the free circulation of information. Despite its drawbacks, the Internet is and will remain a key infrastructure for democracy. Democratic governments must seriously defend an open, interoperable Internet. We do need laws to protect democracy online: what is illegal offline should be illegal online. But circumscribing digital politics in the interest of political finance regulation would simply bite the nose to spite the face.
Viable solutions must be more sophisticated and more inclusive. Allow me to share an example from International IDEA’s work in another region.
Last year, in The Netherlands, following a request from the Dutch government, we spearheaded a project which led to the establishment of a Code of Conduct for online political advertising ahead of parliamentary elections.
This Code of Conduct, the first of its kind in the European Union, was the culmination of a multi-stakeholder process, in which nearly all Dutch political parties and four of the major digital platforms participated. In this effort, International IDEA’s knowledge on electoral campaigns and political finance oversight was combined with input from civil society, the private sector and political parties.
Social media companies like Facebook, SnapChat, TikTok and Google agreed to be transparent about the sender, costs and reach of advertisements during the campaign period. And political parties promised not to post misleading or hateful messages on their platforms or accept foreign funding for advertising. The Code has been very positively evaluated by all parties involved. This is what democracy can look like in an age of digitalization.
And I want to emphasize that while we do this kind of work to protect democracy, it is only possible because of democracy. Only democracies can unite politicians, citizens, civil society and the private sector around co-developed norms based on human rights and the public good. Collaboration based on dialogue is a core comparative advantage of democracy. As we build a democratic social contract for the digital age, we should draw on this systemic potential for inclusivity. This social contract will not be born by fiat, but through broad-based constructive dialogue.
Finally, in this same spirit of inclusion, I want to share some reflections on how campaigning online may affect accessibility, equity and participation in democracies. And here the picture is complicated, because, as I said before, digitalization harbors great risks but also considerable opportunities for democracy, even in the realm of political finance.
Digital technologies can both preclude and ensure transparency in political finance; the Internet can both obscure the financial influence of special interests and empower citizens to become invested in politics like never before. In many countries, unprecedented sums are being raised through small individual donations, giving everyday people a greater role in political finance. The Internet is providing a low-barrier space for political mobilization, which can translate into an increase in offline engagement.
Online campaigning can also help improve accessibility for political parties and candidates. A study in India found that social media helped overcome resource inequality between candidates and increased the profile of smaller candidates. And since any political sphere dominated by conventional sources of money will almost certainly remain a political sphere dominated by men, shifting more political finance online could help build more inclusive and democratic conditions for potential candidates.
Yet this opportunity will not be realized by default. Both online and offline, political finance regulations must have equality in mind. And the specific implications of digital campaigning on equity, accessibility and inclusion are still not well enough understood. That’s why committed, collaborative research on this topic remains so important.
Over the last 10 minutes or so, I hope I’ve conveyed to you why I think political finance is critical to democracy; how digitalization has both complicated and reinforced the role of money in politics; and why improving our understanding of the relationship between political finance and digital campaigning is necessary for building better, more inclusive democracies.
And that of course brings us back to the reason we are gathered here today. Because while there is a general understanding of the opportunities and challenges associated with digital aspects of political finance, there have been few systematic assessments, and none on the Asia-Pacific region. Until now.
The report being launched here today reflects the diversity of the Asia-Pacific region. It features five country case studies: Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan and Kyrgyzstan. It offers both analysis and recommendations. And while the report is firmly grounded in Asian-Pacific realities, I believe its findings and proposals should be met with interest well beyond the region.
At International IDEA, we are cognizant of the threats and opportunities that digitalization poses for democracy. This study is part of a broader institutional effort. Our next institutional strategy, which we are finalizing as we speak, includes a new workstream on digitalization and democracy. This workstream will explore the full range of interactions between digitalization and democracy, intersecting with International IDEA’s longstanding expertise in areas like elections, constitutional governance, political participation and of course political finance. Today’s event is an indicator of the kind of conversations we hope to continue supporting in the years to come. I invite you to join and follow us in this effort.
The future of politics is digital. Indeed, digital politics is already here. The ways in which we approach, understand, and address this transformation of our political systems will determine who has power and how it is used, both online and offline. This is important and timely work, and I feel mightily proud to be able to share it with you.
Once again, it’s wonderful to have you here with us today. I’m looking forward to a fascinating discussion.
Watch the report launch here.
Read the full report here.