The colossal sums spent on election campaigns can have a hugely damaging effect on even the most stable of democracies, declared former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan in Geneva on Tuesday.
“Too much money in elections hollows out democracy,” Annan told the audience at the Geneva Graduate Institute attending a public debate entitled, “Are elections giving democracy a bad name?”
“We must recognise that the growing and sometimes pernicious influence of money, especially in elections even in well-established and seemingly stable democracies really does distort democracy.”
The 2001 Nobel Prize laureate added he was concerned about the rise of anti-establishment populist movements in the US and Europe who are “noisily competing in elections while undermining the legitimacy of their political systems”.
Like every presidential race, money is a big issue in the US. This year millions of dollars are being burned by candidates like Democrat Hillary Clinton to counter Senator Bernie Sanders, who has called for an end to big money in politics. Meanwhile, billionaire Donald Trump is using his own cash as part of his campaign to fight off big spender Ted Cruz, who on Tuesday announced his withdrawal.
At the Geneva debate, former Swiss president and interior minister Ruth Dreifuss told swissinfo.ch that ‘party financing and lobbies must become more transparent in the future’.
Though Switzerland is often held up as a model of democracy, it is also witnessing rising campaign budgets which lack transparency. It is the only country in Europe without campaign disclosure laws.
This long-running issue is regularly criticised by the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and by the Council of Europe's European Group of States against Corruption (GRECO), which monitored the last elections.
“We need to stop saying Switzerland is a model democracy or the cradle of democracy or such like. The Swiss were inspired by the French Revolution and the American Revolution,” said Dreifuss. “Do you really think we invented all that on our alpine pastures? That’s a total myth. We are part of a movement from the 18th and 19th centuries that little by little put in place democratic rules.”
“Too much money at stake”
In parliament, the left has been trying for nearly half a century to institute a minimum of transparency. But in vain. A parliamentary proposal in 2013 called for all donations to political parties or organisations by listed companies to be communicated via an entry in the donor company's annual report. But failed.
The right and centre parties and a majority in the cabinet consider demands for change to be incompatible with direct democracy, which works thanks to the participation of the economic sector in political life.
“There is too much money at stake,” said Dreifuss.” Grassroots need to change it.”
A cross-party group has started collecting signatures for an initiative demanding greater party funding transparency. They have until October 26, 2017 to collect at least 100,000 signatures in order to force a nationwide vote.
The text says parties must reveal all donations they receive worth over CHF10,000. Parties must also publish their annual accounts and parties or candidates who spend over CHF100,000 on a campaign ahead of a vote or a national election must outline their total budget beforehand.
According to the initiative supporters, the Swiss 2015 parliamentary elections were the most expensive ever, costing more per citizen than the US presidential elections.