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Campaign finance reform is overdue in Turkey.

ySTANBUL (CyHAN)- There are big loopholes in election campaign finance laws in Turkey that give influence to special interest groups, wealthy individuals and corporate clients looking to make bargain deals in return for political favors. This decades-old problem is not unique to the term of the sitting Justice and Development Party (AK Party) government, yet the AK Party, like its predecessors, hasn't done much to address the problem. The reason is obvious: All political parties and their candidates, jockeying for cash to fuel their campaigns, have been benefiting from loopholes in the system at the expense of the voters.

Despite the fact that all parties need to send their balance sheets to the Constitutional Court, which in turn publishes these in the Official Gazette (some parties even post them on their websites), the way these reports are compiled obscures how much interest groups as well as corporate and individual donors have funded the election campaigns of parties and their candidates.

It is true that state funding for political parties that won 7 percent of the national vote in the previous election makes parties less dependent on individual and corporate donors in Turkey. Now the government has proposed dropping the threshold from 7 to 3 percent. Nevertheless, the state funding isn't enough to run increasingly costly political campaigns in Turkey, prompting political parties and their nominees to seek funding elsewhere. This may not be ethical, moral or even legal in some cases. Moreover, smaller parties that are not eligible for state funding have to incur large debts to companies or individuals, putting them in a vulnerable position.

The law sets a cap on how much political parties can take in donations from individuals and corporate customers in a given year. The cap is adjusted each year according to tax law. As of 2013, the cap was set at TL 25,000 ($12,400). But there is a big hole in the system that gives donors unlimited power to bankroll political parties through proxies. Since the Law on Political Parties does not regulate the financing of organizations closely affiliated with or run directly by political parties at all, a lot of cash can easily be routed through these organizations to finance campaigns. Yet these donations do not show up on the balance sheets of political parties.

Another serious problem is that political parties sell some seats on their ticket to candidates who are either wealthy or backed by affluent groups. The law allows parties to charge special fees for candidates running for a seat in national or local elections. But the fee, decided and published by party management, does not always reflect the amount of money a candidate is asked to contribute. It is not unusual to hear rumors of cash-counting machines running around the clock in party headquarters in Ankara during the candidate selection period. There is a huge difference between the nominal fees registered as revenue for the party's budget and the cash carried in bags by presumptive nominees on their trips to party headquarters. The big difference between the official fee and the candidate's monetary contribution goes to the party's hidden war chest, and is not reported in account books at all.

Another serious shortcoming is that individual candidates can raise as much cash as they can to promote themselves, without a dime actually getting registered in the party's account books. The current law does not explicitly refer to this fundraising by individual candidates, as it simply focuses on political parties as organizations and fundraising campaigns on their behalf. This is the open secret of the ground zero of campaign funding in Turkey. Everybody knows about it, yet authorities simply choose to overlook it.

The result is that the books don't reflect the whole picture of the financing of political parties and their members. BoldOne does not know, therefore, where a candidate got his or her funding or how it was spent on the campaign trail. The law also neglects to say anything about independent candidates and how they should raise cash. For all we know, the independent candidates fielded by the pro-Kurdish Peace and Democracy Party (BDP), the political party affiliated with the terrorist Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK), might have received their cash from illegal taxation, the drug trade and human trafficking by the PKK in the Southeast.

The way account books are reported also presents a problem in Turkey, where aggregate figures required by law lack detail and do not provide a full picture of campaign financing. It makes the monitoring of funding by the media, the public and advocacy groups difficult as well. For example, the law does not allow political parties to borrow money or take out loans from individual or corporate clients, but they can purchase goods in exchange for credit or collateral. When you look at the main opposition Republican People's Party's (CHP) six-month balance sheet for 2013, it lists some TL 6 million in debt left over from the previous year. Apart from taxes incurred and social security premiums that are due, the CHP declared that it owed TL 2.9 million to entities dubbed simply as "sellers," without identifying them. Since this debt may translate into undue political influence, the public ought to know the identities of these so-called sellers. The same obscurities can be found in other parties' balance sheets as well.

The fact that Turkey does not have an independent monitoring agency to oversee the financing of political parties and campaigns further complicates the problem. Currently, the Constitutional Court is charged with auditing political parties' accounts on an annual basis. The top court, already overwhelmed by a backlog of pending cases from the lower courts, has to look into the auditing reports of political parties for improprieties and inconsistencies with the existing laws and regulations. The auditing reports currently under review by the court date back to 2008, which means the review is really coming in quite late. What Turkey needs is a separate and independent agency that will not only review parties' accounts in a short period of time but also monitor campaign finance in real time during elections. That way voters would be able to have a clear picture, preferably on the eve of elections, of who is really funding political parties and candidates.

Last but not least, the problem in campaign finance law stems from the broad immunity provided to deputies in Parliament. Because the administrators of major political parties in Turkey are usually deputies in Parliament, they are protected from prosecution by a clause in the Constitution that bestows wide-ranging immunity upon them. Although in theory parliamentary immunity can be lifted for criminal prosecutions -- such as charges of running afoul of campaign finance laws -- this rarely happens in Parliament.

In March 2010, the Group of States Against Corruption (GRECO), of which Turkey is a member, submitted a nine-point list of recommendations to Turkey to address shortcomings in transparency in party financing. In a March 2012 evaluation, GRECO noted that Turkey has partially addressed only four of its recommendations and has not tackled five of them at all. A commission was set up in Ankara to look into these recommendations, but there has been no visible progress so far in terms of legislative proposals that will actually address shortcomings in campaign finance law.

Law 6271 on Presidential Elections, adopted in January 2012 to provide guidelines for the first presidential election by direct, popular vote in Turkish history, is much more progressive. It is questionable whether it can serve as a template for national and local elections, however. The law sets the individual donation ceiling as the equivalent of the highest monthly salary of the most senior government employee, while it bars corporate donors from giving any money to presidential candidates. It requires presidential candidates to disclose their financial assets to the Supreme Election Board (YSK). Candidates must deposit all donations to a bank account specifically set up for campaign finance. Since candidates will provide the YSK with all the documents regarding donations they collected during the campaign period only after the elections are held, it is difficult to see how this will foster transparency during the campaigns.

From the GRECO guidelines and the national commission set up by the Prime Ministry in close coordination with the Ministry of Justice and other relevant government agencies, we know what must be done to boost transparency in campaign finance laws. Whether the government has the commitment and determination to move forward on these recommendations is an open question, however.

ABDULLAH BOZKURT (Cihan/Today's Zaman) CyHAN

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Publication:Cihan News Agency (CNA)
Date:Nov 5, 2013
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