Scandal hits uncomfortably close to home
Following his indictment by United States authorities, along with 13 other international football officials, in connection with a corruption scandal embroiling soccer’s world governing body FIFA, the organization’s former vice-president, long-standing Caribbean football supremo and sitting member of the Trinidad and Tobago Parliament, Austin “Jack” Warner, is vowing to tell all.
In a paid political broadcast this week, days after he was arrested and released on bail, pending extradition proceedings, the former minister of national security in Prime Minister Kamla Persaud-Bissessar’s People’s Partnership (PP) administration told a national television audience he had compiled “a comprehensive and detailed series of documents, including cheques and corroborated statements” related to the issue, and had placed them in “different and respected hands” for safekeeping.
Warner, who fell out with the PP coalition, quit and formed his own party on whose ticket he won re-election to the House of Representatives in a by-election, said the documents establish “a link between FIFA funding, the United National Congress (which is the major partner in the ruling coalition) and the People’s Partnership government”. He also mentioned the current prime minister in connection with “other matters” which he did not specify.
Mr Warner’s revelations are sure to reignite debate on the issue of election campaign financing by Caribbean political parties, especially in relation to contributors who are generally the subject of intense speculation or rumour, but whose names are never publicly disclosed. It is an issue of major concern because political parties, which claim to be poor, are suddenly able at election time to spend millions of dollars on glitzy campaigns to woo voters.
Needless to say, the issue also has serious implications for the region’s democracies.
From a modern governance perspective, where the emphasis is on transparency and accountability for persons seeking and holding public office, the FIFA scandal and its link with Caribbean politics, at least in one CARICOM member state, underscores the need for regional governments to move with haste to enact legislation to ensure that contributions to political parties are above board and come with no strings attached. Such a move would at least provide citizens with an assurance that influence is not being purchased for the wrong reasons that can bring the region into disrepute.
A question which Mr Warner did not answer is: why would an international sporting organization, like FIFA, be interested in financially supporting a Caribbean political party? What was it looking for? What did it expect to gain?
Also, given the connection between football and politics in a number of other islands, did FIFA money also end up in the coffers of other regional political parties, either directly or indirectly? These are legitimate questions and the public certainly have a right to know.
Developed countries have had to grapple with this issue of financing of political parties. The solutions they have adopted are worth studying by the Caribbean. We believe the onus is on civil society to push the state to introduce and enforce strict guidelines and regulations on contributions to political parties.
For example, no corporate contributor should be allowed to give more than a specific amount. Donors and the amounts of their contributions should be placed on a list and made available for public inspection. We also believe that governments, for the purpose of investing in democracy, should also financially support the election campaigns of political parties.
For the Caribbean, the FIFA scandal goes beyond the issue of political party financing. Considering that a Cayman Islands bank has been implicated in the scandal, countries with international financial services sectors, like Barbados, may expect to come under even greater pressure from developed countries looking to crack down on an industry that has become of increasing importance, given the region’s limited economic options. Instead of reacting to the backlash when it comes, what strategy is Barbados developing to protect its interests by assuring the powerful anti-offshore lobby of its determination to ensure it attracts only clean business?
The FIFA scandal has placed the spotlight on the Caribbean for the wrong reasons at a time when it could do without such attention. Within the context of the ruling Democratic Labour Party’s 2008 general election promise to introduce legislation to uphold integrity in public life and promote accountability and transparency, the time has come to deliver on this commitment, along with political party financing legislation. Otherwise, it may just be a matter of time before Barbados unfortunately finds itself embroiled in a scandal of international proportions which we hope will never happen.