- The Washington Times - Friday, June 30, 2000

Last-minute allegations of use of foreign funds by a presidential candidate challenging 71 years of unbroken one-party rule in Mexico in the July 2 elections highlight the need to address the issue of campaign-finance reform south of the Rio Grande as well as in the United States.

On Wednesday, officials of the incumbent Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) charged opposition leader Vincente Fox, who has pulled into a statistical dead heat with their candidate, of using illegal funds from abroad to finance his presidential bid. Mr. Fox angrily denied the charges. Meanwhile, the opposition parties and election observers have charged the PRI government with pressuring the poor into backing its candidate, Francisco Lambastida, by threatening to cut off federal funds.

In a country whose democratic institutions have been weakened, sometimes dangerously, by public corruption, political campaign-financing is emerging as an enormous stumbling block to efforts to clean up politics and restore confidence in elected leaders. And, as one respected U.S. drug-enforcement official said privately, the Wild West atmosphere of campaign fund-raising has provided Latin drug barons with one of the surest ways of buying influence and protection.

The problem is not Mexico's alone. In October of last year, Argentines went to the polls to elect a president for the fourth time since a vicious military regime was forced from power. Although the vote to replace two-term President Carlos S. Menem was free and fair, the cost and financing of the campaign added to public cynicism among a population already frazzled by an avalanche of accusations about official wrongdoing. In a country where corruption and public safety have been top voter concerns, and police misconduct a major issue, a second U.S. law-enforcement official pointed out, senior police officials were used by Mr. Menem's party to collect campaign funds from businessmen and others with business before the government.

During the campaign Elisa Carrio, a leading figure in the then-opposition Radical Party, said that she was "disgusted" by the corruption inherent in financing election efforts of both of the country's two major political groupings. Ms. Carrio noted that money came principally from those interested in renegotiating contracts with the state. She challenged Argentina's political leaders to join a debate about whether they would continue to govern in the interests of the four private companies that, she said, contributed the bulk of monies in campaign coffers, or in the interests of the people who were supposed to be represented.

In a country where just a generation ago political leadership was measured by who could fill up the historic Plaza de Mayo with the biggest group of supporters, today money, not masses, makes the difference. Campaigns have become a big, and increasingly international, business. Winning opposition candidate Fernando De la Rua used the services of erstwhile Clinton campaign guru Dick Morris, while until they fell out Peronist standard-bearer Eduardo Duhalde was counseled by former Clinton strategist James Carville.

The mass-circulation daily newspaper Clarin estimated that the presidential contest and other elections held in Argentina in 1999 cost a whopping $200 million. The two major parties spent upwards of $50 million each. In 1983 all parties spent about $9 million; in 1989, $15 million, and in 1995, $40 million.

In Brazil's 1998 presidential elections, in which some $100 million was spent, incumbent Fernando Henrique Cardoso received $34 million of $36 million from 300 large corporations. In tiny Honduras, political party financiers are rewarded with positions in Congress.

In Argentina each party received a certain amount of public financing based on their last electoral showing. Unlike in Brazil, where private contributors must publicly register themselves and the amounts they have donated with the Superior Electoral Tribunal, there is no law regulating campaign contributions.

The problem throughout the region is, in part, the perception that money not only purchases access to decision-makers, but also conditions the policies newly-elected leaders enact once they take office. As Sen. Jose Maria Garcia Arecha, a De la Rua intimate, has noted: "People hold firm to the suspicion that private donations to political campaigns are always linked to the receipt later of special favors or privileges, which are granted to campaign givers by officials who came to office as a result of their largess."

In some countries, the time for reform may be running out. South America's two oldest democracies, Venezuela and Colombia, are bordering on a state of collapse. Venezuelan president and former putchist army colonel Hugo Chavez has turned the corruption of his country's old political order to great advantage to the dismay of whose who see his own past as a possible prologue to future military interventions in politics. Narco-dollars have long contaminated Colombia's political life.

The continued lack of effective regulation of money in politics threatens the fragile fabric of the region's democracies with dry rot and, in the future, unmourned passage by the vast majority now being effectively shut out of their own countries' political processes.

Martin Edwin Andersen is a senior research analyst with Freedom House.

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