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Political Accountability[1]

Political accountability refers to the constraints placed on the behavior of public officials by organizations and constituencies with the power to apply sanctions on them.  As political accountability increases, the costs to public officials of taking decisions that benefit their private interests at the expense of the broader public interest also increase, thus working as a deterrent/disincentive to corrupt practices.

Accountability rests largely on the effectiveness of the sanctions and the capacity of accountability institutions to monitor the actions, decisions, and private interests of public officials. 

Subtopics:

 

Political Competition 

Effective sanctions on politicians can be enhanced most effectively through a meaningful degree of political competition in the electoral process.  Such competition increases the likelihood that alternative candidates and parties will seek to expose

corruption in government or hold politicians accountable for the poor performance associated with high levels of corruption.  Historically, anticorruption and accountability measures were

a by-product of these political struggles.  In England, the parliament debated anti-bribery bills and measures as early as in the 1620s.  While using these in several impeachments of royal protégés brought to light cases of misconduct, they really were more a result of power struggles between the Crown and Parliament. (Johnston. 2000, pp. 27-28)  

a by-product of these political struggles.  In England, the parliament debated anti-bribery bills and measures as early as in the 1620s.  While using these in several impeachments of royal protégés brought to light cases of misconduct, they really were more a result of power struggles between the Crown and Parliament. (Johnston. 2000, pp. 27-28)  

While perceived corruption of a particular party or candidate has shown to influence voters decisions considerably and therefore exposure of cases of political corruption is an effective deterrent to corrupt behavior, there are limits to the benefits of political competition.  Excessive political competition can become a destabilizing factor if it leads to fragmentation of the political system or if it undermines the legitimacy of existing state institutions.  Excessive political competition can undermine state capacity and thus create conditions especially conducive to administrative corruption but also state capture.

Political competition is most effective in promoting accountability when it is channeled through organizations that provide broad constituencies with vehicles – such as mass-based political parties and interest groups – to express their collective demands to political leaders.  Political parties that lack broad-based support are more likely to be dependent on powerful firms and financial interests for sources of financing and on electoral tactics such as vote-rigging, intimidation, and acquiring a monopoly over election coverage by the media.  It is thus imperative that political parties be held to high standards of accountability.

 

Political Party Financing: Experience and Mechanisms[2]

Experience worldwide shows the immense difficulties of installing an effective system of party funding that will not be open to abuse. Many countries have experienced malpractice in public procurement that provided kickbacks for party funding, as well as a plethora of other improper channels involving state-owned enterprises, privatization, and the leverage afforded by appointments and control rights at all levels of government. However, international experience also shows that regulation of party funding can be effective if well-designed, backed by effective sanctions, and accompanied by a parallel diffusion of appropriate ethics and norms. Ultimately it is committed politicians and citizens who have asserted the principles that should govern party financing and have driven through new laws and regulations. These rules need oversight, enforcement, and monitoring. This requires reliable judges or electoral authorities and an active investigative press. In some cases, the shame—and electoral consequences—of political exposure have proved effective. There is no single prescription for success, as party financing rules have to operate in an environment of institutions and degrees of rule-respect that varies across countries, but many countries have found a selection of the following mechanisms to be helpful.  

  •   Leave a paper trail.Ensure that all donations and other sources of party revenue are made public, that donors and the amounts of their donations are identified in the public record, and that candidates disclose links to lobbyists, as well as sources, types, and amounts of support, both before and after elections. Expenditures and their purposes should be similarly published and available for audit.

  • Ban the use of state resources for political purposes. Parties in government should not use state funds, postal services, cars, computers, or other assets for political purposes or in election campaigns.

  • Limit expenditures. Make party politics as inexpensive as possible. Usually the demand exceeds the supply of funds, leading to a search for funding that may breach legitimate frontiers. There is a lot to be said for reversing this relationship by mechanisms used in a large number of Western European and other countries: (i) allocating free time slots on TV and radio to qualifying political parties, with no additional time allocation permitted; and (ii) imposing legal limits on spending, with actual expenditures subject to audit and to effective sanctions in the case of breaches of the limits.

  • Consider public funding.Many countries have established partial public funding, recognizing that political parties play a public interest role: they make an essential contribution to political contestability and the decentralized expression of diverse values and interests. Public funding reduces the scope for private interests to “buy influence” and can also help reinforce limits on spending, because of the electorate’s resistance to excessive public expenditure. 

  • Build public service neutrality.Ensure that the public service is politically neutral and that public servants are neither allowed nor required to make contributions to political parties as a way of obtaining public sector employment. This will contribute to a meritocratic public service that will resist party bias and will encourage decisionmaking in the public interest.             

     
  • Limit types of donors. Some countries have outlawed donations from both public and private sector companies, such as France since 1995, or foreign donations.  

Ensure oversight.Set up an authoritative and independent Electoral Commission or Court to be responsible for the integrity of all issues regarding party finance and electoral rules. Such commissions have been set up in Canada, India, Ireland, and South Africa.  

  Transparency 

Transparency via public scrutiny has proven to be one of the most powerful forms of monitoring public officials.  Such transparency can be fostered by a number of measures, including: opening sessions of the parliament, government, and the courts to the public; registering lobbying activities; and publishing the voting records of parliamentarians, annual reports of government bodies, trial records, an the decisions of judges.

A free and vibrant media is another important factor in making transparency work for the general public.

  Rules and Legal Instruments 

There is a range of legal instruments as well as agency-specific rules which can be effective in deterring corrupt behavior.  Ethics codes, regulations on lobbying, disciplinary committees, prohibitions on and disclosure of conflict of interest, including the receipt of gifts and other benefits received form private resources, asset declaration laws, procurement laws and party financing laws are amongst the most prominent ones.

Freedom of information laws, whereby citizens can demand the disclosure of information regarding government activities and a whistle-blower protection law in order to encourage the reporting of corruption cases can further reinforce the impact of increased transparency on accountability.

To be fully effective, however, such laws need oversight and implementation bodies. 

Resources on Reforming Laws and Institutions are available on the Legal Institutions' web site.

[1] Adopted from World Bank. 2000. Anticorruption in Transition. A Contribution to the Policy Debate. Washington, D.C., pp. 40.

[2] Based on: De Winter (1999), Kaid and Holtz-Bacha (1995), King (2000), Pujas and Rhodes (1999), and Rhodes (1997).  Taken from World Bank. 2000. Anticorruption in Transition. A Contribution to the Policy Debate. Washington, D.C., p. 42




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