Political parties are essential components of democratic governance. Democracies require political parties as these offer the voter political choices at election time. They also represent and channel divergent social interests and diffuse them in what is typically a protracted political process. While the specific roles of political parties vary from one country to another, arguably no democratic system of government can do without them. \nA recent survey published by Transparency International (TI), the leading global non-governmental organization devoted to combating corruption, revealed disturbing news. In 36 out of the 62 countries surveyed, a majority of respondents thought political parties their most corrupt institution. Following political parties, parliaments, the police and the judiciary were perceived as the next most tainted. Ten of 64 countries included in the survey are Asian. In accordance with the overall global tendency, a majority of respondents in India, Indonesia and Japan consider the political parties in their respective countries to be the most corrupt institution. The Taiwanese and South Koreans, however, give the negative distinction of "most corrupt" to their parliaments, while Filipinos, Malaysians and Pakistanis consider the police to be the worst offenders against honesty and transparency. Interestingly, the perceptions regarding corruption are rather different in Singapore and Hong Kong. Respondents in those places are less worried about the corruption of the political classes, but identify the private business sector as most affected by corrupt practices. \nAmong the many important messages of the recent TI-report, two stand out: First, the public perception of political corruption is by no means limited to the so-called Third World with its young democracies but very much a global phenomenon. Second, political corruption continues to have a devastating impact on the public's confidence in political institutions, foremost political parties and parliaments, in all parts of the world. \nThe magnitude of political corruption and the mechanics of how societies choose to deal with it vary from one country to another. Here, political culture, traditions and sociological factors play an important role. While according to the survey political corruption is a serious problem in many democratic societies, the situation is worse in dictatorships where political checks and balances are not in place, and media and civil society are severely restricted. At the same time, transitions from authoritarianism to democracy do not automatically lead to an end of political corruption. Some argue the opposite may be the case. There exists a strong correlation between electoral campaign expenditure and political corruption. To win elections, politicians and parties wage costly campaigns. Often, campaign contributions are linked to political favors. The challenge is not to eliminate all money from politics. Parties need money to function according to the constitutional provisions. Ways and means must be found to ensure the clean and transparent management of all political funds. \n"One common observation is that corruption in parties is more prevalent when parties lack strong ideological commitments", wrote Peter M. Manikas and Laura Thornton in a recent book entitled Political Parties in Asia. They argue that when parties offer their constituents little in terms of concrete policies and programs "money can substitute as a driving factor for winning votes." Thus, the promotion of platform-based party politics becomes one strategy in fighting political corruption. \nOn a more technical level, governments that have successfully tackled the issue of political finances have implemented two policies: first, they have set clearly defined limits to the amount candidates and parties may receive and spend from third parties, and second: they have introduced direct public subsidies. \nAmong the Asian countries in which political corruption is perceived by many as a major systemic problem is the Philippines. For some observers, the absence of strong platform-based political parties and illegitimate money politics are just two sides of one coin. Therefore, it is no coincidence that regulating party finances plays a central role in Philippine discussions aimed at reforming the party system. Accordingly, the proposed Political Party Development Act submitted to the Philippine Senate last year seeks to impose a cap on campaign donations and provide for state subsidies to electoral candidates. Regrettably, the bill was never passed. It looks like the issue of reforming political finances has slipped down the priority list of the present administration and the political forces supporting it. \nThe failure of the political class in the Philippines to enact sweeping electoral reform legislation ahead of the general elections last May stands in stark contrast to the determination with which reforms of political parties and campaign finances have been pursued in other East Asian democracies. While Taiwan's governing Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) has set a benchmark regarding the democratization of internal party procedures by introducing primary elections to select candidates for public office, South Korea has set new standards regarding the way politicians deal with money. \nNot long ago, politics in South Korea were considered by many as one of the most corrupt in the region, if not in the world. In 2004, however, that country has experienced tremendous changes in its political finance regime. At the center of these ground-breaking reforms stands the legislation which significantly restricts the finance practices of parties and politicians: "Everything is forbidden. Candidates can only go door-to-door," a South Korean activist was quoted as saying in a recent study on electoral campaigns in Asian countries conducted by the Council of Asian Liberals and Democrats in cooperation with the US National Democratic Institute for International Affairs. According to that report, the most crucial factor for what it terms "the sudden transformation of political finance practice" is the determination of the political leadership. South Korea's President Roh Moo-hyun gave prosecutors "free reign" to investigate parties and politicians for corruption and even encouraged such investigations targeting his own camp. As a result, even some of Roh's own supporters, among them "honorable" members of parliament, were arrested and have been placed behind bars. \nThe South Korean experience is illustrative and also encouraging. It shows that the battle against political corruption can be won -- and will be won, as soon as the political leadership demonstrates political will. Without this, nothing will change. \nRonald Meinardus is the resident representative of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in the Philippines and a commentator on Asian affairs.
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