Media Center



February 16, 1998 - Caracas

I should like to begin by thanking the Government of Venezuela and especially the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Miguel Angel Burelli, for having taken the initiative of arranging for this meeting of government experts on election campaign contributions to be held in Caracas.

Venezuela has accustomed us to the idea of its hosting important international events aimed at consolidating and strengthening democracy in the Americas. It was here that the countries of the Hemisphere met, just under two years ago, to affirm their commitment to combat one of the gravest threats to the democratic system by adopting the first convention in the world against corruption, which Venezuela had proposed. We were here also in July last year for the forum on Democratic Governance and Human Rights. It was in Venezuela, too, on the island of Margarita, that the Heads of State and Government of Iberoamerica met to reflect and to define courses of action with regard to a topic of supreme importance put forward by President Caldera, that of ethical values in democracy. The Ministers of Foreign Affairs of all the Americas will also be coming to Venezuela this year for the OAS General Assembly, which is already expected to take major decisions on shaping inter-American institutions in line with the far-reaching decisions to be taken by presidents and prime ministers in Santiago next April.

Venezuela’s leadership, while ratifying the profound commitment of its people and government with democracy, also stems from the moral authority and political courage that the hemispheric community recognizes in you, President Rafael Caldera.

This meeting is important, not only because it is the first to be held on this subject in an OAS framework, but also because it puts into perspective the headway we have made with the democratization of the Americas and also, to tell the truth, because it enables us to detect some of the areas in which we need to take new steps forward.

Only a few years ago it was impossible even to imagine a meeting of this nature. In some cases, because there were still authoritarian regimes, which had not been chosen freely and spontaneously by citizens at the polls. And in other cases, because we lived together in a kind of unspoken anxiety, which led us to resist any kind of meeting such as this, for fear of undue interference by others in our domestic affairs.

There is no doubt that times have changed. After the dark night of dictatorships, democracy dawned in the Hemisphere. Today, all active members of the OAS have democratically elected governments, and political freedoms and civil rights have expanded substantially. We are a community of nations, whose unity and strength lies in our shared values and principles.

What is more, we are becoming increasingly aware that, in order to consolidate those shared values, collective action, mutual assistance, and sharing of experience have become not just advisable but indispensable.

This is the backdrop to our efforts these past years not just to defend democracy from the evil forces lying in wait for it but to interpret our work as an effort to strengthen democratic values.

In fulfilling this essential purpose, we must guarantee that free, transparent, and periodic elections are held, in which candidates compete on an equal basis for the support of the electorate and in which the electorate is assured of all guarantees needed to exercise the right to vote.

The existence of illicit money in election campaigns is cause for growing concern throughout the Americas. Unfortunately, to varying degrees, this is a problem in which, as a passage in the Bible suggests, there would appear to be nobody who can throw the first stone. That concern is legitimate, because if money is capable of significantly distorting electoral processes, we will not have free and transparent elections and, as a result, we will seriously compromise the legitimacy of democratic systems.

In some countries of the Hemisphere, the transition to democracy has involved holding frequent elections, not just general, but also regional and local elections. This virtual avalanche of elections has not always gone hand in hand with clear rules guaranteeing, among other things, transparency in campaign financing, and in some cases it has spawned corruption. In others, the increasing costs of election campaigns have led to attempts to barter economic support against current or future decisions by the authorities.

However, experience shows that that is very difficult to stop. Numerous approaches have been tried. Although there are a wide range of institutional arrangements in this area, they may be grouped under three major headings.

The first approach is to rely on political responsibility, which Anglo-Saxons call accountability. This was the predominant approach before the first election campaign scandals erupted approximately 20 years ago. For accountability to function, there have to be strong parties that appeal to the electorate and constitute alternative options. Above all, the opposition has to be both robust and loyal, in order to assure transparency and effective political control. Needless to say, even in the few democracies in which such demanding conditions apply, it is becoming clear that political responsibility alone is not enough to prevent money from exerting improper pressure on politics and not enough to ward off the considerable harm done to democracy when a corruption scandal erupts, due to wrongful financing of election campaigns.

The second approach has been adopted, in various guises, by equally consolidated democracies. It consists of what might be called the mixed approach, with ceilings on both individuals’ campaign contributions and on the outlays permitted for political propaganda, using government resources. This approach may be prior to, or subsequent to, the date of the elections, that is to say, in the latter case, a system involving reimbursement of electoral expenses based, in most cases, on the number of votes obtained.

For this system to work, it is essential that the oversight bodies enforcing compliance with the ceilings for both contributions and expenditure operate effectively. This rarely happens given the politically sensitive nature of this issue, although there are some examples of countries in which this system has functioned satisfactorily.

In addition to the political factor, there is also a legal snag: those interested in getting round the ceilings or using money to increase their clout when decisions are taken always find a loophole in the law that allows them to slip their money through. The system can also become somewhat distorted when there are no ceilings on contributions or if they are ineffective and, as result, election campaigns request and receive substantial sums of money that, if the electoral outcome permits, are then totally or partially reimbursed by the State.

Countries in this situation are in the worst of all worlds. Room for exerting excessive or improper influence on policy remains, while, at the same time, the State incurs a cost that, in some cases, ends up being absolutely useless from the point of view of forestalling corruption. Here it is well worth underscoring the crucial part played, in this approach, by an independent electoral authority, properly equipped with the tools needed to investigate and to punish, if necessary with loss of the office acquired via illegal procedures flaunting the basic rules of the game.

The third approach, which could, in a sense, also be called mixed attaches much greater importance to state financing of election campaigns. As the costs for the State may be considerable – albeit warranted by the importance of investing in democracy – there are few countries that have pursued this option. For it to function, it is essential to guarantee the transparency of the origin and destination of public funds, not only through formal procedures but above all by ensuring that the political environment is competitive and open.

Obviously, the problem it poses is the very close liaison between the state apparatus and the political parties, which, in this approach, tend to be strong and to become the chief promoters of election campaigns. Thus, whenever there are waves of criticism of politicians and parties due to wrongful campaign financing practices, the system is highly vulnerable, because it can become a target or even a symbol of corruption.

Perhaps the biggest challenge here is to be creative. All three approaches have presented shortcomings and dangers. Their frailty has induced us to continue pondering which institutional arrangements best match not only the peculiarities of the problem and the political system in each country but also the four objectives that need to be borne in mind.

The first is to prevent corruption. Corruption may be no more than a simple quid pro quo, that is to say the bartering of legal favors for licitly acquired money, in which case the problem lies with the illegitimacy of the benefit received, in this case not by the political friend but by the economic friend. The corruption problem may be much greater, however, when the money is illicit, the proceeds of criminal activities, in which case the favor expected in return is even more illegitimate.

The second objective is political equality. It is not enough that each citizen have one vote to guarantee full political equality. It is essential to avoid huge discrepancies in access to power based on money. Otherwise, we will be condemning ourselves to plutocracy.

A third consideration is how to lower the cost of election campaigns. This may involve free access to the media, particularly those owned by the State, and setting a time limit on the duration of the campaigns. In any case, however ingenious the institutional arrangements may be, the chances of success are slight unless some way is found to halt the surge in election campaign costs.

The fourth objective is to preserve the credibility and integrity of the political system and, obviously, of politics, in the pragmatic, as well as original, sense of the word. What matters is not just to clean up politics, but to recover its prestige as a tool for the transformation of reality. In that perspective, how we handle campaign finance is extremely important for life in society.

As we have seen, there are numerous question marks associated with the agenda you have been asked to consider. How to ensure that election campaign financing does not impair transparency, freedom, and equity in elections? How to guarantee strict monitoring of such financing? What guidelines are needed with respect to ceilings, origins, and equity in contributions? What criteria should govern effective control and surveillance of those contributions? How can we guarantee that the outcomes of elections are not determined solely by superior funding? In short, to quote a classic on presidential elections, how to ensure that he who pays the piper does not call the tune?

Naturally, we do not expect this meeting to come up with a definitive answer to these and many other questions. However, we do trust that partial answers based on different contexts may prove to be the start of an enriching process of shared experiences and cooperation on a topic that is vital for the present and future of our democracies.

I am convinced that the process of democratization in the Americas cannot be reversed. Democracy has taken root in our countries and is here to stay. Nor can we ignore, however, Huntington’s dictum to the effect that when our memory of the defects of authoritarianism fades, irritation with the defects of democracy may increase.

That is why we stand here today to learn how to embark on a path we know to be steep and full of hurdles.

On behalf of the OAS, I wish to thank all of the experts for accepting our invitation.

I wish you every success in your deliberations.

Thank you very much.