Assignment 2 Political Parties And The Electoral Process In The Commonwealth

Of all the countries in Southeast Asia, Malaysia’s elections have arguably received the most academic attention. Since the country received its independence in 1957, there have been thirteen general elections, regularly held within five-year intervals with the exception of the eighteen-month emergency period after the May 1969 racial riots. As elections have become highly institutionalised, the study of Malaysian elections has been a flourishing research area, dominating the discussion of politics. Despite the broadening of civil society and political contestation outside of the campaign periods, elections serve as defining points in the country’s political history, be it the recent May 2013 and March 2008 polls or the pivotal historic 1955 and 1969 contests. By way of an example, less than a year after the 2013 polls, no fewer than three journal special issues, three books and multiple articles have been devoted to understanding the electoral process and outcome (Case 2013; Chin 2013a; Kee 2013; Khoo 2013; Ufen 2013; Weiss 2013; Welsh 2013, 2014).

This chapter looks at research on contemporary elections in Malaysia. The chapter is necessarily selective in its approach and coverage. The purpose is to draw together central themes and evaluate how elections are being understood, rather than to provide a comprehensive review. Attention centres on two important themes: voting behaviour and electoral integrity. This attention to political behaviour and the rules and norms governing polls reflects two comparatively recent threads in the studies of Malaysian elections. The focus is on national-level general elections (GEs).1

The richness of recent studies lends considerable optimism regarding our understanding of elections in Malaysia. Our knowledge of Malaysians as voters has expanded, with increasing attention to different political identities and social cleavages. We also find that public attention to electoral reform has fostered in-depth research on how Malaysia administers elections and the impact of these administrative rules and procedures. As elections have become more competitive in the last decade, more attention is also centring on how elections may allow changes in leaders and policies. In short, we appreciate the multiple roles that citizens, campaigns, rules and institutions play in shaping electoral outcomes. Nevertheless, as will be developed below, considerable questions remain unanswered, not least of which is whether elections in Malaysia will offer its citizens the opportunity for regime change.

From elites to citizens: frameworks of voters and voting

With high turnouts, averaging over 70 percent since independence, it is fitting to begin with how voters have been studied. In two of the most comprehensive early studies on Malaysian elections, Ratnam and Milne (1967) and Vasil (1972) provide a detailed overview of the participants, parties and performance during the 1964 and 1969 GEs, respectively. These works set the standard for research on elections in their scope and richness and began a pattern that has occurred regularly in Malaysian scholarship – a focus on reporting on the election itself. The thrust of these initial works was on the winners and losers, allowing for resilience in these studies over time. One of the defining features of these early studies, however, was the largely missing Malaysian voter. The attention to the election primarily highlighted the elites participating in the process as candidates and their campaigns. Voters were largely missing ingredients in the initial analytical works, as an elite focus on interpreting elections emerged.

While a preoccupation with elites would persist in election studies – as it does in other analyses of politics in Malaysia – an appreciation of ordinary citizens would evolve gradually. Voters began to be framed as groups, primarily as ethnic communities. The dominance of ethnicity in Malaysian politics is a persistent feature in the analysis of voting behaviour, with the framing of ethnicity initially derived from the race-linked Malay–Chinese–Indian–Other (MCIO) conceptualisation that parallels the ethnic composition and identity of the leading peninsular-based political parties.2 In 1957, the dominant party, the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), forged a coalition with the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) and Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), forming what was known as the Alliance. After 1969, the Alliance was expanded to include more political parties, particularly those in the two states of Sabah and Sarawak in East Malaysia, and renamed the National Front or Barisan Nasional (BN). While nominally more multi-ethnic, the main opposition parties historically in Malaysia have also rested on ethnic foundations, namely Malay support for the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (Parti Islam SeMalaysia, PAS) and Chinese support for the Democratic Action Party (DAP).

The ethnic paradigm in Malaysian elections rests on certain assumptions and is a self-reinforcing dynamic. Voters are seen to prioritise their ethnicity over other features of their political identity, such as class or gender or even sub-ethnic identities. Moreover, they are believed to view their role as citizens along racial lines, for example to see politics as being about the rights of different ethnic communities who operate in an ethnically divided polity. Voters are also presumed to assess the performance of political parties by their ability to represent their respective community. These assumptions tie into different practices in electoral contests. Voters are categorised in constituencies along ethnic lines – with different ethnic rationales used to delineate seats – which in turn leads to a particularly ethnic-oriented contest. Ethnic-based issues such as language, education, affirmative action and religion closely intertwine with broader questions of ethnic representation and feature prominently in political campaigns. Finally, voters are believed to vote according to ethnic loyalties and patterns of mobilisation. Which comes first – ethnicity in the political identity of individuals, or in the way political parties engage with voters – is moot, as a perceived mutually reinforcing ethnic dynamic heightens this lens in analysing elections.

While scholars have rightly criticised the ethnic paradigm’s use and dominance in electoral analyses (Loh and Saravanamuttu 2003), not least for its shallow understanding of ethnicity (Mandal 2004), the ethnic paradigm remains embedded in research and arguably in Malaysian voting behaviour itself. The significant patterns in voting behaviour along ethnic lines and continued use of ethnicity by political parties – prominent in GE13 (Welsh 2014) – make it impossible to dismiss ethnicity in understanding Malaysian elections.

In voting analyses, researchers have thus not surprisingly drawn attention to ethnic voting patterns (see, for example, Brown 2005; Welsh 2004; Chin and Wong 2009). This genre has run the gamut from heuristic studies based on culture to data-based analyses using detailed statistics on election results and polling. The main questions have generally revolved around two issues. Foremost is the ‘loyalty’ of the Chinese to the existing system. Traditionally, the Chinese community has been a swing group, moving away from the incumbent government in 1969, 1990, 2008 and 2013, and shoring up the incumbent coalition in elections such as 1995 and 1999. The issue of ‘loyalty’ of Malaysian Chinese is highly politicised in that Malay leaders in the dominant Malay party, UMNO, have regularly used the Chinese community as a target and labelled them as orang pendatang or ‘foreigners’ – despite many in the community having longer roots in Malaysia than other citizens. The Chinese, along with other ethnic minorities, are labelled as ‘second-class’ citizens. In 2013, Chinese Malaysians made up 24 percent of the population, a decrease from 36 percent at independence. Their ‘loyalty’ to the incumbent coalition is seen as decisive as it still can shape the final outcome in elections.

The second issue has been the level of unanimity of the Malay community. UMNO as a party draws its legitimacy from articulating the interest of the Malays, as they define it. Malays comprise 50.4 percent of the population currently (although with the other indigenous population of East Malaysia included, this increases to 67.4 percent). If the Malay community is split, or in other words, loyal to opposition parties, then the legitimacy of the ruling party is questioned. UMNO’s greatest political challenge has come when it has lost ground in the Malay heartland of the country, namely the north and east (Kedah, Perak, Perlis, Kelantan, Terengganu and Pahang). Its greatest challenger has been the Islamist PAS, although since 1999, another party, now called the People’s Justice Party or Parti Keadilan Rakyat, has also won considerable Malay support. Securing Malay support is portrayed as the legitimate marker of the right to hold onto power by those who conceive of political power as primarily ethnicity-driven. One of the ironies of UMNO in office is that it has set the terms of its own legitimacy, opening itself to challenge when it loses support among the Malay community.

While analysis has concentrated historically on the two largest ethnic communities, the Malays and the Chinese, with greater electoral competitiveness has come increased attention to smaller minorities. These groups are no less important in shaping political outcomes, as the minority groups are evaluated for their support for the incumbent government. Studies of East Malaysia are often subdivided to reflect the communities there – Malay/Melanau, Chinese, Kadazan, Dusun, Iban and more – highlighting the ethnic pluralism of Sabah and Sarawak. Over time, there have been increasing efforts to fit East Malaysia’s ethnic communities into a peninsular-oriented framework of three different groups, a construct that does not reflect conditions on the ground. The use of the ethnic paradigm to understand voting has risen in prominence in East Malaysia as its role as a king-maker in national politics has increased (Chin 2013b).

The Indian community has also gleaned attention, although research on this community is hampered by its limited size – Indians currently comprise 7.3 percent of the population – and geographical dispersal. In 2008, the Indian community was highly mobilised over issues of religious freedom, forming a movement known as HINDRAF (Willford 2013; see also Anantha Raman Govindasamy, this volume). Their move away from the incumbent coalition is seen as one of the decisive factors that contributed to the BN’s loss of its two-thirds majority in parliament that year. (The dominant coalition has held onto power in every election in Malaysia, although it has fallen short of a two-thirds majority three times – 1969, 2008 and most recently, 2013.) In this ethnic approach, elections are seen to be determined by the support of different ethnic communities, with voters acting as unified race-based groups.

The ethnic heuristic tool is reinforced by the use of two other related social cleavages to understand voting. The first is an extension of the ethnicity rubric to include religion. The other is geography. Let us take each of these in turn. The synergy between religion and ethnicity has always been close. From Malaysia’s early years, when the organisation that became PAS was formed in 1947 by a split over Islam within UMNO, to more recent mobilisation of religious minorities over religious freedom, a focus on religion simultaneously has been an outgrowth of, and reinforced, the ethnic voting paradigm. Religious issues have permeated political campaigns due to the link with morality, party identity and political mobilisation. How much actual voters are swayed by religion as opposed to other aspects of ethnic identity is challenging to distinguish because of the explicit linking of race with religion, especially among Muslims. How much voting is determined by religion alone is even more challenging, given the complexity of religious practice and Malaysia’s religious pluralism. While a Malay, as defined in the Malaysian constitution, is a Muslim and lacks the freedom to choose another religion, there are differences within the Malay community in how Islam is practised, as is the case for all of Malaysia’s religious communities for their respective faiths. Recent scholarship has drawn attention to how religious issues mobilise voters and how religiosity among both Muslims and Christians has shaped voting patterns (Hamayotsu 2013; see also Puyok and Liow and Afif, this volume). The findings do show that religion and religiosity, like race, help us understand voting behaviour, especially in recent polls. For example, among Malays, PAS continues to win over more religiously devout and conservative Muslims (Yahoo! News Malaysia 2013). We also find that religiously devout Christians are more inclined to support the opposition (Welsh 2014). This scholarship, however, is less rigorous in its empirical methodology than are other studies in the ethnicity paradigm that now rely on statistical analysis of local polling-station data as well as surveys.

Another analytical framework for understanding voting behaviour has been geography, or place. The urban–rural divide remains one of the most important political cleavages in Southeast Asia, including Malaysia. Studies of rural–urban differences have pointed to the impact of information, messaging and campaigning as underscoring why rural voters differ from their urban counterparts (Ockey 2004). Seen as less informed and more focused on parochial politics and personal patronage, rural voters are believed to be more conservative and usually to favour the incumbent. In Malaysia, as a result of the concentration of Chinese in cities and Malays in rural areas, at least before the 1980s, the ethnic paradigm has been conflated with the urban–rural lens. While there remains a higher concentration of Chinese in urban areas, especially in East Malaysia, the country as a whole is more than 70 percent urbanised, with Malays now on a par with or exceeding Chinese in number in many of the urban centres of Selangor and Penang. Studies through the 1980s continued to highlight this geographic divide, with more recent scholarship holding different views of urban–rural cleavages. In analyses of the 2013 results, for example, some scholars (Chin 2013a) argue this divide was decisive for the BN while others posit that both the cleavage itself (Thompson 2013; also Thompson, this volume) and actual voting patterns (except in East Malaysia) do not help us understand the results (Welsh 2014). The view that the government gets its support from the rural areas remains prominent (Lee 2013).

This emphasis on geography has extended to other regional patterns, focused around states and dynamics in particular regional governments. East Malaysia especially has regularly been singled out for its unique voting patterns, with the power of personality and local issues given greater explanatory importance (Chin 2013a; Welsh 2014). The use of place in politics has been a useful tool to interpret differences in voting patterns.

The contemporary use of socio-economic lenses to understand voters has moved from groups to individuals, bringing more complexity to research. Gender and generational factors are now meshed with ethnicity and place. Research shows that women generally favour the incumbent regime, except Chinese Malaysian women (Yahoo! News Malaysia 2013). We also find that young voters are decisive in electoral outcomes, and have been since 1999. This trend will likely continue as a result of Malaysia’s young population. In 2008, young voters gave the opposition sufficient boost to break the two-thirds barrier, but in 2013, young voters were more split, leading to limited opposition electoral gains (Welsh 2014). Data collected from polling stations and surveys have been used to capture such voting patterns with increasing sophistication.

Of these lenses, one is noticeably missing – class. While there have been efforts to bring class into our understanding of voters – pointing to lower-class support for the opposition (Syed Husin 1984) and more recently, the effectiveness of the BN in winning over lower-class voters in 2013 (Welsh 2014) – the socio-economic positions of voters are often overlooked or ignored altogether. Ethnicity continues to trump all the other frameworks, even as our appreciation of the richness and diversity of the political identities of voters themselves has been enhanced.

From clients to citizens: voters in context

Despite a deeper understanding of voting patterns, questions continue to linger in our understanding of voters. Why exactly does a Malay vote as he or she does, for example? Socio-economic markers capture differences, but do not necessary help our understanding; we can identify patterns in our research, but are left grappling with the search for causes of voting behaviour. Rather than look at voters themselves, scholars searching for causation have turned to more interactive models that connect voters with the state or political campaigns. Malaysians are portrayed as voting in response to government efforts to win support through the provision of public services, economic performance and stability. In one of the earliest broad reflections on Malaysian elections, scholar Harold Crouch (1996) stressed the importance of the interaction between voters and the government, with elections serving to legitimise the government and simultaneously forcing the government to recalibrate its governance. The focus on the government was extended in the seminal works of Francis Loh (2002), who emphasised the impact of ‘developmentalism’, or the use of development resources and rhetoric, to hold onto power. Complementing such work are recent analyses of the populist use of government resources to woo support in the 2013 polls through ‘commercialisation’ (Welsh 2013). Looking at elections with attention to the state, through the lens of the actions of the government, allows us to understand better why voters may opt to maintain their loyalty to the BN.

Another interactive approach has involved a focus on campaigns. Traditionally, the discussion of campaigns has involved the three ‘Ms’ – media, machinery and money (with a fourth ‘M’ of Mahathir Mohamad, the country’s fourth premier) (Mustafa 2004; George 2006). In each of these areas, the incumbent has been seen to have the edge, using its control over the mainstream media, large party organisation and access to resources to its advantage. Technological change and the use of the Internet and social media have levelled the playing field in media, although this rebalancing has not extended to mainstream media and analyses of the recent election reveal that the government was able to master new media, as well, although less well (Diamond 2010; Khoo 2010; Houghton 2013; Steele 2009; Tapsell 2013).

Contemporary campaigns in Malaysia are a hybrid, melding pre-modern forms of mobilisation in ceramah (public rallies) with post-modern practices of centralised planning and the use of professional consultants. They combine performance and theatre with policy-oriented public engagement (Lim and Ong 2006). The campaign itself has been seen as decisive in shaping outcomes, as occurred in 2008. In that contest, the government was on the defensive over issues of ethnic exclusion and perceptions of unfulfilled promises by then premier Abdullah Badawi. Besides drawing attention to the Internet and social media, contemporary research has helped us appreciate the effects of different types of messaging in campaigns – yet another ‘M’ – and their effectiveness (Ibrahim 2010). Polling and focus group analyses are now well integrated into campaign strategies. The central role of governance issues such as corruption and cost of living concerns reflects greater attention to the problems identified by voters themselves. Voters have had more impact on campaigns and in turn, campaigns have become more impactful. The interaction of campaigns and outcomes points to a further people-oriented trend in Malaysian elections: a greater attention to the needs of citizens in elections.

Citizens are also taking electoral politics into their own hands. In the last decade citizens have felt empowered at the ballot box. They know they can make a difference to the outcome. From the reformasi movement of 1999 that brought a generation into the streets, many of whom are now in parliament, to the political awakenings that have taken place in less politically active towns such as Bentong and Miri and states such as Johor and Perak since 2008, Malaysia’s political life around elections has become energised and engaged. Elections remain the focal point for political life, but the political relationships forged during campaigning extend into everyday politics. There has been a political mobilisation of the electorate, with groups across the political spectrum making demands and contesting with each other. Ordinary citizens are no longer relying on elites and political parties for representation. Some citizens see too much ‘politics’ now in Malaysia, while others do not see the form and substance of contemporary politics, both its polarisation and its personalisation, to be constructive. Elections, however, have become less of a controlled arena of politics as described by Benedict Anderson (1996) in his characterisation of elections in the region. Rather, they are an extension of broader political engagement.

Contesting the rules: challenges of electoral reform

A central dimension of this citizen politics has been contestation over the electoral process. Dressed in yellow and marching for electoral reform, participants in the Bersih (Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections) movement catapulted the issue of electoral integrity onto the national stage. Since 2007, there have been intense discussions about how to make the rules and administrative processes governing elections fairer. Scholarship has similarly expanded to draw attention to electoral reform. Broadly, four major areas have come under scrutiny, all of which point to ways the system favours the incumbent party and negatively affects electoral integrity.

Foremost among these issues has been the conduct of the institutional bodies that administer and regulate the conduct of elections (Lim 2002, 2005). Complaints have repeatedly centred on the perceived bias and lack of professionalism of the main institution, the Election Commission (EC). This body is constituted by the prime minister and since 1962 has lost its ability to administer polls independently. The EC is comprised of senior civil servants, many of them lacking professional backgrounds in administering polls, and is seen to favour the incumbent party. That former and current commissioners have publicly claimed loyalty to UMNO has contributed to concerns about a lack of neutrality.

The institutional organisation of elections extends beyond the EC to include the Registrar of Societies (ROS) (who monitors political parties and their registration), the police (who regulate campaigns, while other branches provide intelligence reports to the incumbent party), as well as the judiciary. Concerns have been raised about the police for their support of the incumbent party and of the ROS for decades, as the party registration process has been seen as arbitrary and politically tainted. Recent complaints over the lack of a fair hearing in the over sixty electoral petitions that were filed in GE13, including measures that arbitrarily dismiss petitioners, have reinforced the view that even the judiciary’s role in elections does not meet international standards of neutrality. Some reports go further, to suggest that administrators of Malaysia’s polls fail adequately to ensure transparency in counting, secure and accurate ballots and the rule of law; such critiques move an assessment of the administration of Malaysia’s polls away from one of non-neutrality, to suggest active participation in ensuring victory for the incumbent coalition (Pemantau 2013). While these matters remain highly contested, concerns over administrative neutrality point to a major weakness in Malaysia’s electoral integrity.

These concerns are reinforced by evidence that points to exclusion and suspect practices in the management of voter registration. Malaysia has a higher voting age than the global average, twenty-one, thereby excluding millions of its young citizens from voting. The issue of exclusion goes beyond the voting age to involve the registration process itself. The EC has been seen as arbitrary in assessing when to include voters in the final electoral roll, as occurred in the competitive 1999 election, which excluded 100,000 newly registered voters from participating. While steps in recent years have allowed for online voter registration, the burden this administrative hurdle places on voters effectively excludes many citizens from voting. The exclusion is particularly acute in the more remote areas of East Malaysia, where voters are effectively registered through government civil servants as they often lack access to register otherwise. The opposite concern is also raised, with reports of non-citizens being allowed to vote. This is particularly common in Sabah, where hundreds of thousands of illegal migrants have been granted the right to vote since the 1980s, according to a recently concluded Royal Commission of Inquiry (Welsh 2013). While the EC rightly is not the sole organisation responsible for this practice and it lacks enforcement capacity to review questions of citizenship, the end result has been that elections in Malaysia have excluded citizens in the registration process, yet in some cases, included non-citizens. There is a perception that these non-citizens (some of whom are later granted citizenship) skew the electoral outcome in the incumbent party’s favour.

The issue of who is included and excluded is tied to the integrity of the electoral roll itself. Recent audits of the electoral roll before GE13 identified significant problems in the composition of the list, with persistent ‘phantom voters’ reported, many of whom either lacked addresses or were listed all in one residence (MERAP 2013). Repeated calls to revamp the electoral roll have been effectively ignored by the EC; a cleaning exercise left many parties unsatisfied as the reported problems remained. Malaysia’s judiciary has denied the ability of opposition political parties to question the electoral roll, despite reports and witnesses.

Concerns with the electoral roll are compounded by unexplained placements and transfers of voters among different constituencies. GE13 in particular saw an unprecedented rise in the share of new voters, including in some constituencies of senior leaders in the incumbent party. For instance, the remote rural constituency of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak himself received over 30 percent new voters (Welsh 2014). Voters in the same household, including a husband and wife, have been assigned to different constituencies without explanation. The padding phenomenon for leaders, as well as strategic movement and placement of voters within constituencies, has occurred at regular intervals, especially in elections before delineation exercises, most recently in GE13, or in highly competitive contests such as in Terengganu in 2004. These practices are conducted by the EC and deepen concerns over electoral integrity.

A third area in which scholarship on elections has questioned the electoral playing field involves the conduct of the campaign. This area ties into the discussion of the ‘Ms’ noted above, especially money and the media. Financial resources have become more important in political campaigning with the move away from pre-modern campaigning to post-modern practices (Fernandez 2010; Gomez 1996). This shift has impacted the conduct of elections. The advantages of money have significantly benefited the incumbent government. Effectively unregulated campaign financing, vote buying and the abuse of state resources in campaigns have become the norm, although these practices are being challenged. The attention to money in campaigns for its favouring of the incumbent government parallels long-running complaints about control of mainstream media and obvious biases in reporting. Malaysia’s mainstream media outlets are owned by companies linked to the government political parties (Mustafa 2004). There is a lack of access for opposition parties and skewed coverage during the campaign itself.

Finally, scholars have questioned the electoral framework, both the electoral system itself and organisation of constituencies, and the legal framework (Lim 2003; Das 2005; Rachagan 1980; A. Rahman 1994). In 2013, the incumbent government won 47.4 percent of the popular vote but obtained 59.9 percent of the seats (Ostwald 2013). This skew has extended the outcry over how the electoral framework advantages the incumbent. Malaysia’s ‘winner takes all’ first-past-the-post electoral system has been criticised, with calls increasing for the introduction of a more inclusive proportional-representation system. Failure to meet international standards for constituency delineation has generated even more concern, including inconsistent use of standards, heavy malapportionment by creating seats in ‘safe’ areas, and lack of transparency in the delineation process itself. Malaysia has long stood out as an example that does not conform to the global trend of reducing discrimination and bias in drawing constituencies.

New understandings, persistent question

Greater scrutiny of voters, voting and the electoral process has brought increased appreciation of the complexity of elections and their importance. Scholars continue to flock to analyse elections and debates have flourished. Yet all these studies have yet to provide a clear answer to the question that has underscored much of the research: whether elections in Malaysia will serve as a means to change the government (Case 1993; Liow 1999). The BN now stands as the longest-serving government in the world. Many Malaysians believe that a change of government will open a path to new forms of governance and greater democracy. Others would like to hold onto what they know.

Contemporary studies of elections suggest that the obstacles to changing the government are high. They have been illuminated in the attention to electoral integrity and in efforts to gain a clearer sense of who constitutes the base of support for the incumbent government and why. Rather than providing a clear trajectory of trends ahead for electoral behaviour and outcomes, these contributions generally point to greater contestation and increasing confrontation over elections. Malaysia’s electorate – as is the case in many parts of Southeast Asia – is polarised and this polarisation is widening. The electoral process itself is now also being contested.

Will this polarised pattern of voting change? What sort of campaign will allow the government to hold onto power? Will electoral reform move forward and how will this happen? Despite contributions to knowledge on elections, the answers to key questions of what motivates Malaysians to vote as they do and whether they can overcome the obstacles embedded in electoral rules remain elusive. If there is one certainty in our understanding of elections in Malaysia, it is that elections will continue to generate interest and debate.



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Welsh, Bridget (2013) ‘Malaysian elections 2013: a step backward’, Journal of Democracy, 23(4): 136–150.

Welsh, Bridget (2014, forthcoming) Democracy Denied? Malaysia’s GE13, Singapore: Marshall Cavendish.

Willford, Andrew (2013) ‘Every Indian is burning inside’, in Bridget Welsh and James Chin (eds), Awakening: The Abdullah Badawi Years in Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur: SIRD.

Yahoo! News Malaysia (2013) ‘Class, gender divide seen in GE13 voting trends, says Merdeka Center’, Yahoo! News Malaysia , 16 May.

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Parties and Candidates

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Parties and Candidates Index

Parties and Candidates Quiz

UNDP Electoral Assistance Toolkit

Political parties and candidates are key stakeholders in the election cycle. Candidates standing for office are affiliated with political parties which both define a candidate’s ideology and policy position while reflecting a list of issues with which the electorate can identify based upon a political party platform as mirrored in the candidate’s election promises to the public.  Candidates as individuals represent a party platform and with the help and support of their affiliated party apparatus, they compete for public office, carry out election campaigns, and try to convince voting citizens to cast their ballot for them. Ultimately, the ability to openly campaign, receive credible public support through the voting process, assume public office, or form a credible opposition once in government depends on the legal, political, and cultural environment in the country, and on the administration,  outcome, and public acceptance of the election results. Additionally, public acceptance of the outcome must be followed by final validation of the election result by political parties and their respective candidates. If both the voting public and political party candidates do not accept election results due to real or perceived electoral fraud or irregularities, the legitimacy of the resulting legislature or government is threatened.

Parties and candidates are also political actors that have the potential to be a negative force in the election cycle.  The illegal practices of vote-buying or illegitimate party finance, the proliferation of defamation and hate speech in campaigns, voter intimidation by party workers, corruption in election-related decision-making, and the systematic exclusion of certain sectors of society constitute examples of where political parties threaten the functioning of democratic systems rather than support it. Laws and regulations regarding campaigning, funding, and functioning of political parties are developed to minimize the potential disruptive influence of political parties while still allowing them enough freedom to contest elections.

The freedom of speech and assembly, freedom of organisation, and the right to vote and stand for election are some of the guiding principles of this topic area.

The Parties and Candidates topic area explores the following themes:

External regulations relating to parties and candidates is a section focusing on laws and regulations on, for example, party finance, registration of political parties, and legislated quotas.

The section on internal functioning of political parties deals with party structure, the role and responsibilities of auxiliary groups, decision-making in the party, and candidate selection.

Parties and candidates in the electoral process aims to explore the issues more closely related to elections, such as candidate nomination, withdrawal of candidacy, contacts with electoral management bodies, and codes of conduct.

Parties and candidates in the legislature explores the formation of governments, coalition-building, and the ties between political parties and elected representatives.


“Elections provide an opportunity for peaceful competition between political ideas and personalities and for political and social debates to play out in an arena of constructive conflict. Maintaining this opportunity for constructive conflict requires attention to the election process beyond Election Day. Voting is only a single event within a cycle of activities and processes that connects one Election Day to the next. Thus, most practitioners and donors have adopted an electoral cycle approach to provide adequate assistance and proper planning. See: An Integrated Approach to Elections and Conflict. (Lisa Kammerud). April 2012.



Parties and candidates are vital for democracy

A country can be said to be democratic only when its elections constitute a real competition among numerous political party-backed and/or independent candidates. Voters need to have a free and informed choice among various policy options and candidates to determine who their post-election representatives will be. Only very few countries are small enough to practice direct democracy in any or all public policy decision-making processes,  and it is therefore crucial for most  democracies to find ways to organise an effective and democratic system of representation. Political parties and candidates are actors tasked with the electorate’s trust and counted on to perform the representative function of government. 

At the basis of such a system, there needs to be an acceptance of the basic human rights and freedoms to speak, organize, stand for election, and hold meetings or publicly-attended campaign rallies without intimidation or threat of arrest. Citizen engagement in and understanding of complex political issues to a large extent depend on the ability of political parties to activate and educate, formulate relevant and demand-driven policy options, and channel public opinion into the electoral and subsequent governing process. Only where parties and their candidates are legally recognized and  free to form and function can they fulfill these roles.

Political parties

A political party is an organized group of people who exercise their legal right to identify with a set of  similar political aims and opinions, and one that seeks to influence public policy by getting its candidates elected to public office. Even though the presentation of candidates and the electoral campaign are the functions that are most visible to the electorate, political parties fulfill many other vital roles in a democratic society. They are also institutionalized mediators between civil society and the duly-elected representatives who decide and implement policy. For example, political party-affiliated legislators who meet with civil society representatives to solicit individual (or organizational) opinion in the public policy formulation process. By this, they enable their members’ and supporters’ demands to be represented in parliament and in government. Key tasks of political parties include the following:

  1. Solicit and prioritize  needs and policy priorities  as identified by members and supporters
  2. Familiarize  and educate voters and citizens in the functioning of the political and electoral system and in generating general political values
  3. Educate and train party members and leadership on an ongoing basis
  4. Balance opposing demands and convert them into general policies
  5. Activate and mobilize citizens toward political participation while demonstrating how they can transform public opinion into  viable policy options
  6. Channel public opinion from citizens to government
  7. Recruit and train candidates for public office

Internal functioning of political parties

The internal functioning of individual political parties is somewhat determined by external forces such as the domestic electoral system, political culture, and legal regulations.  Overall, however, it is internal processes that are the deciding factor in this process.   Factors that influence a political party from within include the personality of party leaders and staff, the ideological foundations, party history, and internal political culture. Application of democratic principles and processes applied within a party structure include  internal information and consultation processes, internal (formal or informal) rules and bylaws, the internal  organisation and decision-making structure, and transparency in the party’s functioning at all levels. Party members may also take on more formal roles in decision-making such as  participating in internal elections for leadership positions or in selecting the party’s candidate(s) to stand in  upcoming elections. Many parties also work actively to enhance the role of traditionally under-represented groups in their parties. Gender balance in party membership and adequate internal representation by  women in the party’s organizational and governing structures is often reflected in the caliber and quantity of women put forth as part of party-based candidate lists.




Independent candidates

Many electoral legal frameworks allow persons to register and participate as candidates in an election  even if they are not nominated by a political party or a registered party member. The role of independent candidates is more important in countries with Majority/Plurality electoral systems[1] than in those with proportional representation (PR) systems, but there can be a role for independent candidates in most PR systems as well. Even if independent candidates cannot contest an election, there might still be persons in the legislature who are no longer affiliated with a political party and who wish to run for elected office. Countries have different rules as to what happens to a parliamentary seat if the person who holds it leaves or is expelled from his or her political party. In some countries, the representative can keep the seat, while in others the seat is filled by the political party, remains vacant, or is filled through a by-election.[2]

Key stakeholders in elections

Political parties and candidates are key stakeholders in elections. They compete  for public office, carry out election campaigns, and attempt through party issue-based electoral platforms  to convince eligible voters  to vote for them. Ultimately, the possibilities for party-affiliated candidates  to campaign, assume public office, or form a credible opposition depend on the legal, political, and cultural environment in the country, and on the administration and outcome of the elections. From another perspective, the final validation of the election result is in practice in the hands of the political parties and candidates. If they do not accept the results due to real or perceived electoral fraud or irregularities, the legitimacy of the resulting legislature or government is threatened.  Likewise, the voting public—whether affiliated with a particular party through membership or not—must perceive and believe that the results officially declared after Election Day are valid and represent the expressed willing of the electorate.

Parties and candidates are also actors that have the potential to be destructive. Practices of vote-buying or illegal party finance, the proliferation of defamation and hate speech in campaigns, voter intimidation by party workers, corruption in decision-making, and the systematic exclusion of certain sectors of the society constitute examples of where political parties threaten the functioning of democratic systems rather than support it. Laws and regulations regarding campaigning, funding, and functioning of political parties are developed to minimize the potential disruptive influence of political parties while still allowing them enough freedom to contest elections.

Parties and candidates in power

”Today women constitute 19 percent of the members of parliaments around the world. Recently, Rwanda superseded Sweden at the number one in the world in terms of women’s parliamentary representation — 56.3 percent women against Sweden’s 47.3 percent. Rwanda is an example of the new trend to use electoral gender quotas as a fast track to gender balance in politics.”  The Quota Project website

Depending on electoral success, political parties and party or independent candidates will form the government or legislative opposition of a country. The electoral system is an important factor determining how votes cast translate into an electoral mandate, but the choices of parties and candidates in campaigning, coalition-building, and pre-electoral alliances also have an impact on the final result. The ties between elected representatives and their political parties, the internal functioning of their parties, and the training and resources available to them help shape legislation, budgets, and government policies.


Election Posters by grooble is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License.

Guiding Principles

The following principles guide legislation and practices regarding political parties and candidates. The first three derive directly from basic civil and political rights, while the other seven relate to what is needed in practice for a political system to function democratically.

Freedom of organisation

In this context, the freedom of organisation refers to the freedom to form and join political parties and other political organisations. It also refers to the legal rights of such parties and organisations to, for example, have their name and logo protected, to be legally registered and recognized by the government,  and be treated fairly regardless of political conviction, ethnicity, language,  religion or gender of its members.

Freedom to stand for election

The freedom to stand for election refers to an individual’s ability to stand for election and to be duly elected to office. This may be either as an independent candidate or as a candidate of a political party or other organisation. Principles to take into consideration when restricting individuals’ freedom to stand for election include non-discrimination, relevance, reason, and objectivity. It is critical to ensure that the restrictions on and process of nomination are clearly stated in the electoral law.

Freedom of speech and assembly

Freedom of speech and assembly refers to the right of citizens to express their opinions freely, individually or with others. It also refers to the ability for  political parties and candidates to hold meetings and rallies and to freely and openly conduct public  election campaigns. If restrictions are imposed, they tend to address issues of protection from, for example, hate speech or incitement of hatred and violence.

Fair and peaceful competition

For the electoral competition to be fair and peaceful, political parties, candidates, and other electoral actors need to agree on the rules of the game. Such rules may include refraining from practices of hate speech, electoral violence, and defamation. This agreement can be informal, through a voluntary Code of Conduct, and/or supported through a legal framework with enforceable sanctions and is usually contained with the Electoral Code[1]


In order for voters to have a real and meaningful choice on election day, the political and legal system of a given country usually considers establishing and maintaining a multi-party electoral system.    This system usually includes provision for  independent candidates to stand for election – in order for voters to have a choice among several political parties and/or independent candidates.

Inclusion in the electoral process

In all aspects of an election – changes to electoral laws, election administration, codes of conduct, etc – countries need to decide what kind of involvement they want from political parties, candidates, voters, and other key stakeholders. The involvement can take different forms ranging from being informed to being consulted, part of decision-making, or free to observe voting, vote counting, and collation of results. In some countries, this may include active participation of political parties in the election cycle prior to Election Day when the Central Election Commission (CEC) or other electoral governing body is deliberating and determining the content and character of the electoral code.[2]

Level playing field

Political, cultural, legal, and financial realities might lead to a situation where some political parties or candidates have (or are perceived to have) an unfair advantage over others. Equal access to media legislation can help to ensure that all candidates (and their respective parties) receive air time and press access.  . Additional measures such as party registration, freedom of assembly, ability to promote party platform in the media, and  quotas to enhance the participation of under-represented groups may also be applied.[3]

Media access and reporting

The media are a key channel for voters, political parties, candidates, and other stakeholders to receive information related to an election. Legal frameworks should protect media  freedom to report and scrutinize the workings of political parties and other actors in the electoral process, and should also address ways to ensure that parties and candidates receive an equitable access to and coverage in publicly owned media.

Transparent and accountable political finance

Money is a key element in modern political campaigning, and legal frameworks and administrative practices often regulate party and campaign finance. Regulations may cover possible access to public funds, restrictions on (mis-)use of public resources (by the incumbent party or candidate), provisions for the finances of political parties and candidates to be transparent, or prohibitions on certain sources of funds.

Internal party democracy

If a political party would like the democratic principles of electoral politics to be applied within the party, it may consider practices like internal information and consultation processes, internal (formal or informal) rules and structures for the organisation and decision-making within the party, and transparency in its functioning at all levels. Party members may also take on more formal roles in the decision-making like participating in internal elections for leadership positions or in selecting the party’s candidate(s) for the upcoming elections. Many parties also work actively to enhance the role of traditionally under-represented groups in their parties.[4]

Interpretations of these principles may differ. For example, “equitable treatment” in publicly owned media may for some mean an equal allocation of broadcasting time to all parties and candidates, while others would say that it would be more fair to give new parties more media time on the grounds that they need more time to convey their message to the public than established parties. Other still would say that the party that received the most votes in the last election has earned the right to a bigger share of the broadcast time because it has proven that it represents the views of the largest share of the electorate.

Contradictions between different principles also occur. Take for example societies with a history of severe inter-communal violence, where laws are sometimes passed to discourage or even prohibit political parties that are based on ethnicity or religion. It may be very difficult to draw the line between safeguarding the principle of “fair and peaceful competition” and violating the principles of “freedom of organisation” and “freedom to stand for election”.


Political and governmental arrangements

The political system of a country shapes its political parties. The balance of power between the legislature and the executive affects party functioning in government and opposition, with strong governmental powers diminishing the role of opposition parties between elections.

Presidential systems add another dimension to party politics, both by putting focus more on personalities than party structures and by promoting alliances between parties about which presidential candidate to support. Another important factor is the relative centralization or decentralization of the country. Federal systems tend to produce political parties with more regional ties while parties in unitary countries tend to be focused on the national level.


Socioeconomic and other inequalities societies tend to be reflected in the political parties. The existence of ethnic, religious, or other minorities often affects parties and party systems, especially if they are geographically dispersed.  This is evident in the ethnically-affiliated party electoral outcomes witnessed in post-conflict transitional countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan since 2005, and as recently witnessed in the division along ethnic lines among the voting population in the Arab Spring countries among others.[1]

Violent conflict

New and restored democracies often have a history of violent conflict that affects political parties. Some may be transformed from military groups while others are new or emerge from civil society organisations. The existence or threat of violence in society influences both political parties and individual politicians, who often engage in the political process—including standing for election and serving in government—despite high personal risks.

Electoral Systems and Party Systems

Political parties and party systems are to a large extent affected by electoral systems. Some systems encourage, or even enforce, the formation of political parties; others recognize only individual candidates. The type of party system which develops, in particular the number and the relative sizes of political parties in the legislature, is heavily influenced by the electoral system. So is the internal cohesion and discipline of parties: some systems encourage factionalism, where different wings of one party are constantly at odds with each other, while another system might encourage parties to speak with one voice and suppress dissent. Electoral systems can also influence the way parties campaign and the way political elites behave, thus helping to determine the broader political climate; they may encourage, or retard, the forging of alliances between parties; and they can provide incentives for parties and groups to be broadly based and accommodating, or to base themselves on narrow appeals to ethnicity or kinship ties.[2]

Political culture and societal norms

The political and societal norms of a country determine how political parties function. Hierarchical and patriarchal norms are reflected in the structure of many  political parties, as are  cultures of consensus-building and consultation. What is accepted during meetings and election campaigns is shaped by the society in which political parties operate rather than only by their internal culture.

Changing context and a crisis for political parties

Since the mid-1900s, the political landscape has been a field of rapid development. Democracy has spread to new countries and regions, societies have changed with economic development. The access to television and electronic media has grown considerably in recent years, and the globalization of politics affects the everyday life of persons all over the world. Political parties struggle – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to adapt to changing circumstances and keep up with new developments. Political parties need to seek new ways of organizing and functioning if they are to survive in the new millennium.  This is particularly evident in the recent transformation of the political landscape initiated in North Africa and the Near East as part of the “Arab Spring.”[3]


The international development community is in general agreement that  political parties are l key actors in functioning democracies. Despite this, on all continents and in all countries of the world, political parties and politicians turn up among the least trusted institutions and personalities in public opinion polls.[4] Political parties are sometimes perceived as corrupt institutions supporting the rule of special interests and the wealthy  elite that are not responsive to members or general supporters. Politicians have gone from being respected personalities to being perceived as distrusted manipulators who are in politics for their own personal gain. This trend was made clearly evident in the recent wave of political and electoral change initiated in North Africa and the Near East in 2011. 

In some countries, the label ‘political party’ invokes an immediate negative response from the electorate and as such  new political forces choose to call themselves movements or organisations rather than taking the name of political party – even if they claim to fulfil the same roles and meet on the same arena as the traditional political parties.

Professionalization and membership

Politics worldwide has morphed from the basic precept of  being a field for interested and engaged citizens to represent community interests through government service to increasingly being a field of professionals. There are many reasons for this. Increasingly complex political systems with decision-making processes that nowadays have implications reaching far beyond the country borders put different demands on politicians – demands that cannot easily be met by enlightened and community service oriented citizens. Many commentators also claim that the increasing power of media in election campaigns have sped up the move towards professional politics. Campaigns are more often run by marketing consultants than by local party members, and one minute’s broadcasting on television might have more impact than 100 local meetings and rallies.  The influence of political action committees (PACs) and special interest groups that contribute large sums to individual or party-based campaigns should also be considered and recognized in the contemporary political party electoral process.[5]

These factors have also changed the will of citizens to become party members. The membership in political parties is declining both in new democracies and in the Western European countries that are used to having political parties based on a strong membership. It has been detected that some citizens blame public funding of political parties for making these more an institution of the State than private organizations, dependent on their members. On the other hand, it has also been registered that some citizens blame private funding of political parties for making these more dependent of particular interests in spite of the general interest.

Globalization and international contacts

Not only political decisions have international implications. The contacts of political parties are also increasingly global, and the ties to the Party Internationals and sister parties in other countries now help shape policies and formulate election campaigns also at the national level. At the same time, new and trans-national political parties are emerging in intergovernmental and supranational organisations like the European Union.

Political parties and candidates fund their campaigns not only through support from local citizens but also through donations from exile communities, multi-national organisations, and international support groups. Many countries have enacted laws prohibiting foreign sources of funds in politics, but loopholes and new practices render many of those laws ineffective.

Increasing costs

The access to funds and the regulations on what they can be used for influence political party behaviour. The costs of running a political party with offices, local branches, membership registers, and frequent meetings is escalating, but it is mainly campaign expenses that drive political parties to seek ever more funds.[6] Even though there is no empirical evidence to suggest that the party that spends most on an election will also win, the money put into a campaign does affect the number of voters that will hear the party message.

Especially in countries where paid political advertising is the main means of communicating with the public, election expenditure is rising. In a bid to cut campaign costs, many countries have chosen to ban paid political advertisement and offer free advertisement in publicly-owned media instead, including providing free airtime on state-owned media for political debates, coverage of campaign rallies, and airing of town hall meetings sponsored by political parties during the pre-election period. In some instances, this has increased party and candidate access to the media (and indirectly to the voting public),  but the competitive environment of elections and the powers vested in legislators and governments still attract large sums of money from donors.


 Of the areas in which political parties are most frequently criticized, the issue of representation often comes out on top. Political parties are perceived as distant from their members and supporters and having failed to include all segments of society in politics. Women are still largely excluded from politics; at the turn of the 21st century, they constituted only 15% of representatives in elected legislatures around the world. Ethnic, religious, and social minorities are also often excluded from political power, and political parties have been blamed for systematically favouring the dominant elite.

“Around the world, a lack of gender balance in decision-making positions in government persists. Women continue to be underrepresented in national parliaments, where on average only 17 per cent of seats are occupied by women. The share of women among ministers also averages 17 per cent. The highest positions are even more elusive: only 7 of 150 elected Heads of State in the world are women, and only 11 of 192 Heads of Government. The situation is similar at the level of local government: female elected councillors are underrepresented in all regions of the world and female mayors even more so.[7]

The ability and interest of political parties to broaden their base and recruit leaders and candidates from non-traditional groups are also said to be crucial for the peaceful articulation of their interests. The risk that some groups might resort to violence is greater if they do not feel that their demands are taken seriously by the established political parties.

Adapting to a new political landscape

There is a rising concern in political parties about the low levels of trust and membership, and in many countries and regions, political parties have embarked on self-assessment projects to comprehend where they might have gone wrong and learn how to better represent the public. Quotas and other positive measures are adopted to deal with problems of representation, opinion polls are developed as new consultation tools, and codes of conduct are utilized to agree on fair campaigning procedures. Parties try to engage their members and interact with civil society groups at the same time as they try to adjust to new, international circumstances.

Also, legal frameworks attempt to help foster stable and trusted political parties. Ceilings are put on election expenditure to avoid constant increases in campaign spending, transparency is enforced in party financing, legal quotas enhance the role of women and minorities, and political advertisement is provided free of charge in many countries.


[1] See for example: Bhardwaj, Maya.  Development of Conflict in Arab Spring Libya and Syria: From Revolution to Civil War. The Washington University International Review // Washington University in St. Louis, March 2012 and Simonsen, Sven Gunnar.  Addressing Ethnic Divisions inPost-Conflict Institution-Building:Lessons from Recent Cases.  International Peace Research Institute, Oslo (PRIO), Norway (2005): PRIO, SAGE Publications,

[4] See for example Pew Global Attitudes Project:

[6] Nota bene: Consideration is also given to the parallel expectation that as political party positions are increasingly viewed as “professional posts,” party members tend to expect commensurate compensation for fulfilling the duties and obligations of these positions on a full-time basis.

[7] UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (2010).The World's Women 2010:Trends and Statistics.

External Regulations of Parties and Candidates

Constitutions, electoral laws, political party laws, and various regulations have an impact on political parties and candidates. This section deals with laws and regulations that concern parties and candidates such as the registration requirements for political parties as organisations and roles and functions that are attributed to political parties in the political system by constitution or party law. In particular, this section discusses the funding of political parties and the financial regulations that stipulate income, expenditure, and reporting rules for political parties and candidates. Another topic that is dealt with is legislated quotas, i.e., constitutional quotas or quotas defined by the electoral law.

The internal functioning of political parties, and the regulations that concern parties and candidate in the electoral process and in the legislature, are covered in subsequent sections.

Laws and Regulation that concern Political Parties

This section deals with laws and regulations that concern parties and candidates as key stakeholders in a political system, such as registration requirements for political parties as organisations, and roles and functions that are attributed to political parties in the political system by constitution or party law.

The financial laws and regulations concerning political parties, as well as legislated quotas, will be discussed in separate sections.

Roles and Definition of Political Parties

A political party is defined as an organised group of people with at least roughly similar political aims and opinions, that seeks to influence public policy by getting its candidates elected to public office.

Parties tend to be deeply and durably entrenched in specific substructures of society in a sustainable and well functioning democracy. They can link the governmental institutions to the elements of the civil society in a free and fair society and are regarded as necessary for the functioning any modern democratic political system.

Political parties perform key tasks in a democratic society, such as

  1. Soliciting  and articulating public policy priorities and civic needs and problems as identified by members and supporters
  2. socialising and educating voters and citizens in the functioning of the political and electoral system and the generation of general political values
  3. balancing opposing demands and converting them into general policies
  4. Activating and mobilising citizens into participating in political decisions and transforming their opinions into viable policy options
  5. Channelling public opinion from citizens to government
  6. Recruiting and training candidates for public office


Political parties are often described as institutionalized mediators between civil society and those who decide and implement decisions. As such,  they enable their members’ and supporters’ demands to be addressed  in parliament and in government. Even though parties fulfil many vital roles and perform several functions in a democratic society, the nomination and presentation of candidates in the electoral campaign is the most visible function to the electorate.

To perform the above mentioned tasks and functions, political parties and citizens need some rights and obligations guaranteed or ruled by constitution or law. These include

  • Freedom of organisation
  • Freedom to stand for election
  • Freedom of speech and assembly
  • Provision of a fair and peaceful competition among parties and candidates
  • Mechanisms to ensure plurality
  • Inclusion in the electoral process and contacts with electoral bodies
  • A level playing field and freedom from discrimination
  • Media access and fair reporting guarantees
  • Transparent and accountable political finance

The internal functioning of individual political parties is to some extent determined by forces that are external to political parties, such as the electoral system, political culture, and legal regulations. However, internal processes of political parties, such as the personality of leaders and staff, the ideological foundations, party history, and internal political culture are considered to be even more influential on the internal functioning. If a political party would like the democratic principles of electoral politics to be applied within the party, they may consider practices like internal information and consultation processes, internal (formal or informal) rules and structures for the organisation and decision-making within the party, and transparency in the party’s functioning at all levels. Party members may also take on more formal roles in decision-making like participating in internal elections for leadership positions or in selecting the party’s candidate(s) in the upcoming elections. Many parties also work actively to enhance the role of traditionally under-represented groups in their parties.

Registration of Political Parties as Organisations

Registration of political parties generally refers to the registration as organisations, though it can also be used to denote a separate process of registering to present candidates for election, which is usually a part of the process of candidate nomination. Even if the procedural requirements for gaining access to the ballot are the same as for the initial registration of parties, the legal framework has the possibility of clearly differentiating between the two.

While the registration of political parties as associations gives them a legal status, protects their name and logos, and conveys their intention to function as a voluntary organisation, the registration to gain ballot access confirms their intention to contest a specific election.

The guiding principle for the registration of political parties is the “freedom of organisation”, which concerns the freedom to form and join political parties and other political organisations. The principle deals with the legal rights of such political parties or organisations, such as the protection of their name and logo, and protection from discrimination based on political conviction or the ethnicity, language, or religion of its members.

It is good political practise to ensure that the legal framework clearly specifies when, how, and where registration procedures must be undertaken, what the requirements for registration are, and how the verification of registration will take place. The electoral legal framework should provide for uniformity in the registration process so that the same registration process applies to all political parties at all levels. To ensure fairness, the grounds for rejection of a registration application have to be based on objective criteria, explained clearly to the applicant or applying party, and have to be clearly stated in the legal framework for elections, along with the mechanism for appealing against such rejection. Correctly applied, this protects political parties against arbitrary discrimination and ensures equal access to the electoral process for all qualified candidates—whether party-based or independent

In systems where registered political parties have access to public funds, broadcasting time on radio and television, free or discounted postal services, or other forms of public support, requirements are often stricter and demanding enough to discourage the registration of groups with little or no intention of trying to influence politics or contest elections. In countries without those kinds of benefits for registered political parties, registration can be a relatively simple process so as not to undermine the freedom of organisation.

Common requirements to register a political party

Countries can choose to have a minimalist approach with few requirements in order to encourage the registration of a large number of parties, or a maximalist approach with more demanding requirements to discourage parties that are not serious or well-organized. The possible requirements can be grouped into five different categories:

Indication of a party name which does not resemble the names of already registered political parties, is not provocative or offensive against public decency, and does not incite violence or hatred. Further limitations on party names may be formulated, such as prohibitions on the use on individuals’ names as part of party names.

Indication of a party symbol or logo which does not resemble the symbol of any already registered party or private company. In some countries, the use of religious or national symbols is also prohibited. Colours with a symbolic value such as the colour of the national flag are sometimes proscribed.

List of office-bearers or otherwise of party leadership, often with full addresses or other form of identification.

Provision of party statutes or constitution and often a protocol that states that the statutes have been approved by an executive board of the party. In many countries, the party statutes have to clearly state that the party adheres to the rules of the democratic process.

  • Popular Support or Adherence

List of a certain number of registered members or/and supporters of the party, usually with signatures and addresses or other identifying information such as voter registration number. The more maximalist the approach, the higher the number of registered members required.

Proof of geographical presence, often in the form of membership or supporting signatures from a certain number of regions or districts.

Payment of registration fees ranging from smaller administrative frees to more substantial sums.

Payment of monetary deposits that may or may not be returned to the political party on the basis of election results. This exists especially in cases where political parties need to register separately for each election they wish to contest.

Clear procedure and timetable

Deciding that a political party or candidate cannot contest an election will arouse anger and resentment – both from the affected party or candidate and from their followers and potential voters. In order to avoid such problems as much as possible, the conditions and timing for registration and nomination can be communicated in detail well before the election, and the EMB can maintain close contact with the parties and candidates seeking acceptance.

A well communicated and thought through timetable is of great help. The EMB or other responsible agencies need time to scrutinize the registration, verify signatures of party supporters and members, perhaps exhibit the registration papers for review by other interested individuals or parties, and give parties the chance to appeal if they feel that their registration has been unduly denied. Therefore, political parties are often required to register and to nominate candidates well in time before an election, since after the scrutinizing procedure, the EMB still needs time to print the ballot papers and distribute them to the polling stations.

In some countries, a formal application from a number of party members starts the process. Once that application has been approved, party representatives have a set number of weeks or months to present their signatures, statutes, and other proofs that they meet the requirements. A formal decision by the responsible authority finally determines the legal status of the party.

Financial Regulations

Motives for regulating political finance may vary considerably and with them also the focus of the regulations. At least four different motivations can be identified: preventing abuse; enhancing fair political competition; empowering voters; and strengthening parties as effective democratic actors.

Preventing financial and electoral process abuse is the driving force behind legal regulations such as limits on donations and prohibitions on sources of funds. The risk of political corruption and the distorting effects money can have on politics can be limited with this kind of regulation.

Enhancing fair political competition and levelling the playing field can be done by providing political parties with public funds, using positive action to enhance representation of under-represented groups, or by putting a ceiling on election expenditure.

Empowering voters can also be done through legislation. Requiring public disclosure of party income and expenditure gives voters a chance to know who is supporting which parties or candidates and to decide for themselves which sources of funding they find acceptable, and vote accordingly.

Strengthening political parties is often the most difficult goal to meet. Countries can help foster strong and democratic political parties with strong links to their members by providing matching grants for donations, giving extra funds for training and development, and in general providing legislation that is coherent and functioning.

The financial regulation of political parties and candidates is an area in which enforceability is critical to the credibility of the effort to control political corruption. In general, legislation that cannot be enforced should not be enacted. It is good practice to draft laws with their implementation in mind, also looking at the resources available to the body that will monitor and enforce the laws.


Direct and Indirect Public Funding

Public funding refers to funds or resources provided by the State/Government to political parties and/or candidates.

Political parties and candidates should have equitable access to public funds, and the rules regarding public funding should be clearly stated in law. It is particularly important that there be no misuse of public resources by the incumbent party or candidate. The legal framework should encourage the founding and sustainability of a multi-party system.

Public funding is divided into direct public funding or indirect public funding, depending on the form in which public resources are made available.

Direct public funding is given to political parties in the form of money – usually as bank transfers.

Indirect public funding refers to resources with a monetary value that the Government provides to political parties. For additional detail, see the file about indirect public funding of parties and candidates.

Use of Direct Public Funding

If public funds are given to political parties and/or candidates, the state may have an opinion on what the money should be used for. Sometimes, this can be expressed as recommendations to the political parties or candidates, while in other cases funds are earmarked for specific purposes, or certain uses are prohibited.

One main difference is whether or not it is expected that the funds will be used for election campaign purposes (more common where public funds are given to candidates) or for routine, non-election related operations (more common where funds are given to political parties). Specific funds may either be earmarked for specific purposes, or accepted purposes can be listed and it can be allowed that the party or candidate allocate the funds between them.

Apart from general election campaign purposes and routine operations of the party, funds are commonly earmarked for:

  • The work of the parliamentary group/caucus, which may include administrative staff, legislative research, and publications or other information needed.
  • Training of party members or candidates in everything from party ideology to membership recruitment and citizen outreach.
  • Research, including research staff, information material, and opinion polls.
  • Party solidarity work in other countries, often in the form of funds provided to a political party foundation to support sister parties in developing democracies.
  • Activities aimed to support the participation of under-represented groups such as information campaigns aimed at increasing the participation of national minorities, immigrant communities, young voters, or voters in areas where voter turnout is lower than in the rest of the country.
  • Electoral deposits in countries where political parties or candidates have to present a deposit to register for the elections.
  • Support for collecting signatures in countries where signatures are a requirement for registration.
  • Voter education, which is at times a responsibility of the political parties and/or candidates. If it is, they can often receive funds to cover their costs. In societies where there have been major changes to electoral systems, processes, and procedures and in the case of the newly enfranchised and first time voters, voter education may play an extra important role.
  • Civic education, which may also be a responsibility of the political parties and/or candidates. Civic education deals with broader concepts underpinning a democratic society such as the respective roles and responsibilities of citizens, government, political and special interests, the mass media, and the business and non-profit sectors as well as the significance of periodic and competitive elections.
  • Publishing of election manifesto, ideological publications, or party press.

Timing of Direct Public Funding

The timing of when political parties and/or candidates get public funds varies between countries. The timing is closely linked to two things: what parties and/or candidates are supposed or allowed to use the public funds for and how the public funds are allocated between parties and candidates.

Public funds can be distributed on the basis of election cycles, calendar or fiscal year, or both.

Distribution per election cycle

This is common in, but not restricted to, countries where the public funds are meant to be used for election campaign purposes.[1] The public funds can be given before or after the election, depending on the allocation formula.

If the allocation is based on how many candidates a party is putting forward in an election, on the number of seats each party holds in the national legislature, or on the number of registered members it has, or if the country wants to support new parties that might not be able to fund their first campaign, there is the option of distributing funds before the election.

If political parties or candidates receive reimbursements for election expenses, or if they receive funds depending on how many votes or seats they gained, the funds are naturally distributed after the elections.

It is also possible to advance some funds to a party in advance of an election and some afterwards, with the final accounts adjusted after the election on the basis of votes received or seats won.

Distribution per year (calendar year or fiscal year)

In countries where funds are earmarked for the routine operations of the party rather than for election campaigns, funds are often distributed per year. This is sometimes expressed as the distribution taking place between elections rather than before or after.

Given that the public funds within the same country can both be earmarked for specific purposes and allocated according to a combined formula, parties and candidates often receive parts of the funds at different intervals and different stages of the election process.

Allocation of Direct Public Funds

The allocation of direct public funds[1] is based on a formula on which a decision is taken on how much each party or candidate should receive. There are three main principles that can guide the allocation: equality, proportionality and need. The most common option is to use a formula combining elements of the three principles. All parties or candidates represented in parliament may for example receive a small, equal sum, or they may receive a larger part in proportion to the votes they gained in the last election, and a third part may be given only to parties that contest the election for the first time. One way of dividing the sums is to use different formulas depending on what the funds are supposed to (or allowed to) be used for.

Allocation based on equality can be of the following types:

  • An equal amount is given to all parties and/or candidates that contest an election This allocation can prove very costly and risks encouraging political parties who are not in the game to win or try to influence politics, but rather to get a share of the public funds
  • An equal amount is given to all political parties that received a certain number of seats/mandates in the last election

Restricting the equal funds to political parties with a certain representation in the body concerned by the election limits the risk of funds being allocated to parties that are not a serious election alternative, but also risks discouraging political parties and candidates who are new to the political arena. This risk is aggravated by the fact that all electoral systems reduce the number of parties that obtain seats and thereby discriminate against small parties. This discrimination fills a function in providing a body able to take decisions, but may unintentionally have a more far-reaching effect if the number of seats are used as allocation formula for public funding. Given that this allocation is based on political parties, it is common in countries with electoral systems based on political parties rather than candidates.

  • An equal amount is given to all political parties and candidates represented in the national legislature

If funds are given to all political parties and candidates represented in the body concerned by the election, small and new parties are still discouraged but a wider range of actors are included.

  • An equal amount is given to all parties and candidates that received a certain number of votes in the last election

Widening the target group even more would mean that parties and candidates that received a certain amount of public support in the last election would receive public funds, even if they did not reach the vote threshold for representation. The threshold is usually set between 1 and 2 percent of the national vote. It is less common that the threshold is set in real number of votes.

Proportional allocation refers to systems where parties or candidates receive more funds depending on the amounts of candidates presented, votes received etc. Common criteria for proportional allocation are:

  • Funds are given in proportion to the number of candidates put forward

The allocation of funds depending on the number of candidates put forward for election by a political party is mostly used in countries with electoral systems based on political parties rather than candidates.

  • Funds are given in proportion to the "representational level" of the candidate list put forward

Public funds are sometimes used to increase the participation of under-represented groups by encouraging political parties to field both men and women, and to field candidates of diverse backgrounds.

  • Funds are given in proportion to funds raised (matching grants, aka “matching funds”)

One often mentioned criticism against direct public funding of parties and candidates is that they would become increasingly independent from their members and supporters. With this independence there is a risk that they will tend to not listen to their members and supporters on issues of leadership selection and policy decisions. To counteract this, systems of “matching grants” where political parties and candidates receive public funds in proportion to what they have been able to raise from members and supporters have been introduced. This may work to the disadvantage of new or small parties unable to mount successful fund-raising campaigns.

  • Funds are given in proportion to seats/mandates held

As mentioned above, all electoral systems tend to discriminate against small parties in order to create a legislature apt to take decisions. This discrimination may have more far-reaching implication and prove even more disadvantageous if funds are allocated depending on the number of seats held. The advantage is that parties that already have representation have thereby proven the level of their public support.

  • Funds are given in proportion to votes received

Funds given in proportion to votes cast in favour of the party or candidate in the last election is a system which is still disadvantageous for new and small parties, but to a lesser extent than allocation based on seats.

  • Funds are given in proportion to party membership or other signs of support

Allocation based on seats or votes stems from the idea that the political party should have to prove its public support before obtaining public funds. Other ways of ensuring that a party has support may be to base the allocation formula on membership registers. This would give new parties with a significant level of public support better chances to gain access to public funds. Membership levels are however not automatically a clear indication of how much support the party would get in general elections, and membership registers may be difficult and time consuming for the election authorities to verify.

Lastly, political parties with special needs may get access to funds aimed at leveling the playing field. The following are some allocation types based on special needs:

  • Funds given to new political parties Party systems need to be open to new political parties, and public funding is often perceived as preserving a status quo where the established political parties remain in power much because of the allocation of public funds. This can be counteracted by providing special grants for new political parties.
  • Funds given to small political parties Allocation criteria based on number of seats held or votes received in the last election work to the disadvantage of small political parties. At times special funds are set aside for small political parties if it is perceived as a common good to have small parties in addition to the bigger ones. In other cases, proportional allocation can be used to work to the advantage of small parties by for example letting the first percentage of votes translate into more funds than the following percentages.
  • Funds given to minority parties or candidates Public funds can be used to encourage the participation of under-represented groups. Parties or party lists fielding national minority candidates can either receive special funds or be exempt from fulfilling threshold criteria mentioned above.

Indirect Public Funding of Parties and Candidates

Depending on the form in which public resources are made available, public funding is divided into direct public funding or indirect public funding.

Direct public funding is given to political parties and/or candidates in the form of money – usually as bank transfers but at times in cash or cheque.

Indirect public funding is when resources with a monetary value are provided by the Government to political parties and/or candidates. It is generally less controversial than direct public funding but also has less impact even though it can at times amount to quite a large monetary value.

Indirect public funding can take a number of different forms, the most common of which are the following:

  • Media access, which in practical terms usually means free advertising slots in publicly owned media. Publicly owned media broadcasting multi-party election debates does not constitute indirect public funding.
  • Interest-free loans for paying registration fees or mounting a basic election campaign.
  • Free printing and distribution of ballot papers in multiple ballot systems where parties are responsible for providing their own ballots and in some cases basic campaign information.
  • Free or subsidized office space for political party headquarters or local branches.
  • Free or subsidized public transportation for candidates, key party activists, or in some cases even for supporters going to political rallies.
  • Use of Government buildings like schools, administrative buildings, and sports arenas for meetings and rallies.
  • Special taxation status for political parties, meaning that parties do not pay normal taxes on receipts and expenditures, that they are exempt from paying Value Added Tax (VAT), or that they are exempt from paying any taxes at all.
  • Tax-free donations is a form of indirect public funding that provides the donor with tax incentives for contributing to a political party.
  • Free or subsidized postage for disseminating informational material to voters or, in some cases, for any purpose.
  • Free or subsidized telephone lines and telephone calls.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Public Funds to Political Parties and Candidates

Public funding are funds or resources provided by the State/Government for political parties and/or candidates. Provisions often state that political parties and candidates should have an equitable access to public funds. Oftentimes, the rules regarding public funding are not clearly stated in law, and even if they are, there is often a (real or perceived) misuse of public resources by the incumbent party or candidate. The legal framework can be drafted in a way as to encourage the founding and sustainability of a multi-party system.  Ongoing oversight from a responsible government body combined with public (civil society) oversight through CSO watchdog capacity also can improve the monitoring and full disclosure of funding across party lines and in lines and consistent with the intent of full disclosure and fairness in campaign financing.[1]

Depending on the form in which public resources are made available, public funding is divided into direct public funding or indirect public funding.

Direct public funding is given to political parties and/or candidates in the form of money – usually as bank transfers but at times in cash or cheque.

Indirect public funding is when resources with a monetary value is provided by the Government to political parties and/or candidates.

Arguments against public funding

Those who oppose public funds to political parties or candidates often use one or several of the following arguments:

  • Public funding increases the distance between political elites (party leadership, candidates) and ordinary citizens (party members, supporters, voters) 

When political parties and candidates do not depend on their supporters or members neither for monetary contributions (membership, donations) nor for voluntary labour, they might be less likely to involve them in party decisions or consult their opinions on policy issues.

  • Public funding preserves a status quo that keeps the established parties and candidates in power 

Public funds are often allocated among political parties and candidates in the national legislature. This may make it more difficult for new political forces to gain representation. The legal framework can limit this negative influence by providing special funds for new political parties or candidates.

  • Through public funds, taxpayers are forced to support political parties and candidates whose views they do not share

Many believe that ordinary taxpayers should not be forced – through the public purse – to support political parties or candidates that they would never choose to vote for. Instead they should have the possibility to decide if and when they want to donate money to a political party or candidate. 

  • Public funds to political parties and candidates takes money away from schools and hospitals to give to rich politicians

When introduced, public funding is often unpopular among the public. Public resources are scarce and needed for everything from schools and hospitals to roads and salaries for staff. To many people, using public funds to give to political parties and candidates would be far down their list of priorities.

  • Political parties and candidates both take the decision and collect the money

The decision to allocate public funds to parties and candidates is most often taken in the national legislature (or in some cases in the Government). This means that the political parties and candidates who will collect the money, also take the decision.

  • Political parties risk becoming organs of the State rather than parts of civil society

If all or a substantial amount of the party income comes directly from the State rather than from voluntary sources, political parties risk losing their independence and become organs of the State, thereby losing their ties to the civil society.

Arguments for public funding

A majority of the countries in the world give some form of public funds to political parties and/or candidates. Convincing enough as the arguments above might seem, there are also several good arguments for public funding.

  • Public funding is a natural and necessary cost of democracy

Political parties and candidates need money for their electoral campaigns, to keep contacts with their constituencies, to prepare policy decisions and to pay professional staff. If a country wants to have stable political parties and/or independent candidates, some argue that they also need to be prepared to help pay for them.

  • Public funding can limit the influence of interested money and thereby help curb corruption

If political parties and candidates get at least a basic amount of money from the public purse this has the potential to limit the likelihood of them feeling the need to accept “interested money” from donors who want to influence their policies, rhetoric or voting behaviour in the legislature.

  • With public funding the State can encourage or demand changes in for example how many women candidates a party fields

In the same way as private donations can come with demands on party or candidate behaviour, the State can use public funds to level the playing field and encourage (or force) political parties to undertake reforms, hold internal elections or field a certain number of women candidates, youth or persons from an ethnic minority on their ballots.

  • Public funding can increase transparency in party and candidate finance and thereby help curb corruption

If political parties and candidates receive a substantial amount of their income from the State, they can more easily be required to disclose their income and expenditure. If their financial statements are made publicly available, voters can decide which sources of funds are acceptable to them, and they will also have better opportunities to hold politicians accountable.

  • If parties and candidates are financed with only private funds, economical inequalities in the society might translate into political inequalities in government

In many countries, the support base of political parties and candidates are divided along socioeconomic lines. The support base of labour or dalit parties for example, are traditionally less wealthy than the support base of other parties. If political parties receive all their income from private donations, there is a risk that (mostly accepted) socioeconomic differences in the society will translate into (mostly not accepted) differences in representation and access to political power.

  • Political parties and candidates need support in meeting growing costs of campaigning

Politics and political campaigning is an increasingly costly business. While parties and candidates used to rely heavily on voluntary labour for door-to-door canvassing, they now need to pay for expensive advertising in newspapers or on posters, or buy time on radio or television to get their message through to the voters. Staff costs have risen in many political parties over the last decades.

  • In societies with high levels of poverty, ordinary citizens cannot be expected to contribute much to political parties

In societies where many citizens are under or just above the poverty line, they cannot be expected to donate large amounts of money to political parties or candidates. If parties and candidates receive at least a basic amount of money from the State the country could have a functioning multi-party system without people having to give up their scarce resources.

Reporting and Public Disclosure of Party Finance

Very often, political parties and/or candidates are required to report their income and/or expenditure to the Electoral Management Body or other authority, or to have their accounts audited by the electoral authorities. [1] If this is the case, the accounts are then often disclosed to the public after auditing. In reporting and disclosure regulations, there is a need to strike a balance between the wish by outsiders to know (transparency) and the wish by donors and recipients to maintain their private sphere (privacy). There is a bigger need to respect privacy in countries where the risk of harassment against donors to specific parties is greater. In societies with a low level of public trust in political parties, there is usually a higher demand for transparency and consequently more public disclosure of finances.

Reporting and public disclosure can serve many purposes ranging from assisting the election authorities to ensure that money is not accepted from illegal sources; to being an empowerment of voters in deciding which party or candidate they want to vote for. The main dividing line in reporting and disclosure regulations is whether or not the information gathered is made available to the public.

In cases where the information is made public, it is often argued that voters have the right to know where the political parties and candidates got their money from, to be able to make an informed choice on Election Day. If the reporting information is made available to the public it can:

If a political party or candidate has received large amounts of money from an individual or a company, and is later seen to initiate or vote for decisions that would directly benefit the donor, public disclosure gives media and private citizens a better chance to question the grounds for the decision.

  • Give taxpayers information about what public funds have been used for

In cases where political parties and candidate campaigns are wholly or partly financed by public means, disclosure gives taxpayers information about what the money has been used for.

  • Serve as an alternative or complement to prohibitions and ceilings

Laws and regulations prohibiting certain sources of funds or expenditure items – and laws on ceilings and limits on how much a party or candidate can raise and/or spend – can be difficult and costly, or even impossible, to enforce. Public disclosure can either be an alternative to these laws or serve as a complement. By making the sources and expenditure known to the general public, voters can clearly indicate what they think is acceptable by not voting for parties and candidates who have received their funds from dubious sources.

There are four primary principles underpinning successful regulation on public disclosure. The information provided to the public needs to be: [2]

Accurate, which means that the enforcement agencies need to have the means to audit the reports and ensure that they give a correct picture of the finances of the party or candidate’s campaign. 

  • Timely, in the sense that information on election expenditure published long after the elections can neither affect the voters’ choice on election day, nor serve as a good basis for reasonable sanctions.
  • Include the right amount of detail, and not overburden the reader with a level of detail that is not useful. If the reports are to be read by an informed public, they need to be presented in a way and with a level of detail to make them understandable to a non-professional.
  • Publicly available, not only on public display in a government office in the capital during office hours, but rather published in a way that gives the maximum number of citizens the chance to read the reports. Depending on the country, this may mean publication in main newspapers or on the website of the enforcement agency (EMB or other) or even posting summaries on public notice boards.

[1] See also: Transparency International & The Carter Center (2007).  The Crinis Project: Money in Politics, Everyone’s Concern.

[2] Karl-Heinz Nassmacher (2003): "Monitoring, Control and Enforcement of Political Finance Regulation", in Austin, Reginald and Maja Tjernström (2003): Handbook on Funding of Political Parties and Election Campaigns, International IDEA, Stockholm, p. 144.





Prohibited Sources of Funds

Apart from receiving money from public funding schemes, political parties can receive their funds from membership dues, private (or sometimes corporate) donations, or income from properties or businesses. Too much reliance upon public funds is claimed to reduce the linkage between political parties and their members, and turn them into organs of the state rather than voluntary organisations. Most countries in the world therefore accept, and sometimes even encourage, political parties to seek funds from other sources. All sources of funds are, however, associated with specific risks that may endanger the successful operation of a democracy. Therefore, donations from dubious sources are often prohibited or limited altogether. Grass-roots funding and membership dues are probably the only two sources of funds that are always allowed.

The sources that are most likely to be prohibited are:

  • Funds coming from foreign governments, individuals, corporations, or (in some cases) exiled communities. If a political party relies heavily on funding from foreign sources – especially if it is in government – there is a risk that the national sovereignty could be threatened and that political decisions will be taken with foreign rather than domestic needs in mind. Many object to anyone who does not have voting rights in the country still being able to influence politics.
  • Donations from government contractors are prohibited in many cases. The risk is that elected representatives would feel compelled to reward government contracts to those who have contributed to his or her campaign, or demand donations in exchange for contracts.
  • Corporate donations from national, multi-national, and foreign companies are often prohibited on the grounds that they may corrupt politics by leading the donors to expect favours from elected politicians. It is mainly the fact that corporations can donate very large sums of money that has proven problematic.
  • Donations from State entities (that are not part of public funding schemes involving all political parties) are prohibited on the grounds that donations from State entities would compromise the neutrality and impartiality of the State administration.
  • Trade union donations are prohibited where there is a feeling that the trade union organisations should be kept separate from the political parties.
  • Funds from illegal sources like organized crime, gambling, and the drug trade are banned in many countries and unacceptable in all, regardless of legal provisions, again on the grounds that the donors might expect favours from elected politicians.
  • Religious groups are sometimes prohibited from donating funds to political parties following an argument that organized religion is a domain that should be kept separate from politics.

Prohibitions may be difficult to enforce since they demand that authorities keep a close eye on all funds – including cash, which is notoriously difficult to trace – that come into political party accounts and pockets. The administration of prohibition laws is difficult and consumes both time and resources. Many argue, however, that the importance of the protection it gives democratic politics is important enough to invest resources, while others seek other ways of regulating or monitoring party income. If prohibitions seem like a line that is hard to draw, introductions of limits on donations can help curb the potentially distorting effect of donations but still give political parties a wider range of acceptable sources of funds.

See also:

Campaign Legal Center (USA).  A Guide to the Current Rules for Federal Elections (2010). 

Party Funding and Campaign Financing in International Perspective (Columbia-London Law Series, 2006).  Keith Ewing and Samuel Issacharoff, ed.


Ceilings on Elections Expenditure

Most political parties around the world have experienced an increase in the costs of running electoral campaigns. This leads to situations where unequal access to funds limits some political parties’ ability to campaign. Limits on election expenditure aim to put a lid on these increasing costs, thereby also levelling the playing field between different political parties.

Ceilings on election expenditure are often set by the legislature, the electoral management body (EMB), or other authority tasked with implementing political finance regulations. In the cases where the ceilings are set in law, they are often set not in absolute figures but in multiples of the minimum wage or with a provision for adjustment according to prevailing levels of inflation.

Limits on Donations

Apart from receiving money from public funding schemes, political parties can receive their funds from membership dues, private or (in some countries) corporate donations, or income from properties or businesses. All sources of funds are, however, associated with specific risks that may endanger the successful operation of a democracy. Many countries therefore choose to either limit donations from dubious sources or prohibit them altogether. For information on legal prohibitions, read the file about "Prohibited Sources of Funds".

Limits on donations attempt to draw the line between “participating financially” and “buying access or influence” by setting a limit on how much a donor can contribute or how much a political party or candidate can accept from one single donor. Limits can discourage big donations but also encourage a more balanced and diverse funding base for political parties. This can be especially effective when combined with a sufficiently robust public disclosure requirement.

Legislated Quotas

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