Party funding to remain shrouded in mystery

Posters are most popular for election campaign Keystone

For years the centre-left has been calling for a more transparent funding system for Switzerland’s political parties, but virtually to no avail.

This content was published on June 21, 2011 - 09:21
Andreas Keiser,

Nothing is going to change very soon, according to a political scientist, despite fresh efforts and recent publications on the issue.

A report published by the weekly Hebdo magazine earlier this year saw the rightwing Swiss People’s Party leading the funding table, with spending of about SFr35 million ($41.2 million) on newspaper advertisements and billboard posters between 2007 and 2010.

The other main parties lagged clearly behind with spending of SFr19 million for the centre-right Radicals and SFr8 million for the Christian Democrats.

The centre-left Social Democrats reportedly had a budget of SFr9 million and the Greens a mere SFr2 million for the same period.

The figures may not be completely accurate, but no party denied them outright.

Limited transparency

Championing transparency for years, the Social Democrats have been pushing for rules which would force parties to disclose what companies, interest groups or individuals donate.

“As a matter of principle we support efforts to bring more transparency into party funding,” said Thomas Christen, general secretary of the Social Democratic Party.

“But it is not a key priority to launch an initiative ourselves,” he added.

Christen says it is not sure yet whether an initiative on party financing will even be launched before the October 23 parliamentary elections.

What is clear though is that the Social Democrats are hesitant – their resources are needed for at least four other initiatives, mainly on social security and environmental issues.

Neither the party nor its youth chapter agreed to back an initiative, launched by the youth chapter of the rival Swiss People’s Party in early June. The initiative wants individual parliamentarians to publish the names of their financial sponsors, including gifts, but stops short of calling for the publication of the main source of their income.

Ways round

Political scientist Mark Balsiger is convinced that progress towards more transparency is possible at least in the short term.

“By harping on about political ethics a party can put the topic on the political agenda and raise awareness among a wider public,” he said.

“Still it is not going to change much in the long run. There are enough possibilities to dodge the regulations and fund party campaigns or individual candidates.”

Support committees for individual candidates or ahead of ballots on specific issues are indeed often crucial elements in campaigns to win voters over.

Balsiger adds that it is a myth that money can buy votes and elections.

“Money is only one of about 20 different factors. Key to the image of a party is its profile in the media, credible representatives, developing a feel for popular topics and keeping the finger on the pulse,” Balsiger told


It seems hardly surprising that the People’s Party, very likely the political group with the highest campaign budget, is also the most successful Swiss party in the past 20 years.

But in contrast to the two main centre-right parties - the Radicals and the Christian Democrats – the rightwingers actually have much less cause to worry about a perception that they take orders from industry and the banks.

Not even the well publicised fact that People’s Party strongman Christoph Blocher is a multimillionaire – and believed to an important sponsor of his group – appears to be an issue for the wider public.

Balsiger says primarily people on small incomes and those who like to rile against excessive managers’ salaries perceive Blocher as one of them.

“It might have to do with Blocher’s rhetoric and his demeanour in public. People get the impression that he understands them,” explained Balsiger.

Reputations and taboos

Both the Radicals and the Christian Democrats, however, have been trying to shake off a reputation as being puppets in the hands of industry. But their efforts have not paid off. Quite the contrary.

Last year a group of parliamentarians tried to commit the party to agree to a further easing of banking secrecy rules – only to be shot down at their party conference.

As a result the Radicals are perhaps more than ever considered close to Switzerland’s main banks.

“This image, true or false, has stuck with the party,” said Balsiger.

Similarly the Christian Democrats have often been suspected of making political U-turns in the past years and in return benefiting from payments from industry.

In a parliamentary debate on scrapping import bans for products from the European Union, the party came under pressure from Basel’s pharmaceutical industry. It then caved in to support proposals to protect Swiss pharmaceuticals from cheaper imports from the EU, Balsiger recalls.

“There must have been money involved in the deal. Apparently up to SFr180,000,” he said.

But although the traditional centre-right parties know from their own experience that a lack of transparency on party funding can be detrimental to their image, they are nevertheless strictly against disclosing the names of their donors.

Balsiger says the reasons are simply a long tradition and a general attitude towards financial matters.

“Money is the big taboo in Switzerland,” he said.


Switzerland is one of the few countries in Europe to have no legally binding rules on party funding. At a cantonal level, Geneva and Ticino have introduced respective regulations.

The non-governmental organisation, Transparency International, has criticised the Swiss system as fostering corruption and abuse of party funds.

Similarly the authors of the Democracy Barometer, an international research group, and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe have urged more transparency.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga has announced she ordered a survey of other countries in a bid to push for more transparency in Switzerland.

Last May members of the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption commission carried out a peer-review investigation into Switzerland’s party funding system.

A report will be published at the end of 2011 and possible recommendations could lead to unspecified reforms.

Experts, including Hilmar Gernet, have called for clear rules. In his recent book, (Un)heimliches Geld (Sinister and secret Money), the former manager of the Christian Democratic Party, Hilmar Gernet, moots party funding by the state.

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Parties, ballots

Parties, ballots

There are currently 12 parties sitting in the Swiss parliament, five of which are represented in the cabinet.

The rightwing Swiss People’s Party is the biggest group, ahead of the centre-left Social Democrats and two centre-right parties, the Radicals and the Christian Democrats.

Parliamentary elections take place every four years at the end of October. The next election is set for October 23, 2011.

Ballots on specific issues are also tabled four times a year as a rule.

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