Political party funding still a taboo topic

Voters frequently have no idea who pays for the often costly vote and election campaigns Keystone

Switzerland is one of the few democratic countries without transparency of funding for political parties. A recent attempt to set rules was rejected by parliament.

This content was published on April 1, 2012 - 11:00

A surprise move by two banks to publish their donations to political parties and boost transparency added a new element to the debate.

“We really are an island in Europe, along with Sweden. There, political parties have at least agreed on a few ground rules. In Switzerland, on the other hand, there is no transparency at all. It’s just like one big off-the-books operation,” says Martina Caroni, who teaches international law at Lucerne University.

Numerous attempts to deal with this problem have been made dating back to the 1960s, but without success.

Even today there is a lack of transparency not just on party funding, but on money raised by campaign committees for nationwide referendums and initiatives, and on financial support given to individual politicians.

The three main centre-right and rightwing parties - the Christian Democrats, the Radical Party and the Swiss People’s Party - are united in their opposition to any regulation.

This is perhaps not surprising, as these political groupings - particularly the People’s Party - receive the lion’s share of contributions both from companies and private individuals.

Oasis of virtue

“Unlike some other countries, in Switzerland people don’t like to talk about money and especially about their income - the Swiss prefer not to reveal how much they earn. The parties of the right have so far rejected any attempt to introduce transparency with the argument that in politics you mustn’t talk about money,” notes Caroni.

“There is also a general perception that in Switzerland everything is fine, that everybody behaves ethically and that therefore we don’t need any rules.

“But as we have seen in the business and financial sector, things have changed, even in Switzerland. We are no longer an oasis of virtue.”

Among the reasons cited for remaining reticent on party funding is that transparency would persuade a lot of donors to curtail their contributions or cancel them altogether.

Experience in other countries shows that such fears are unfounded, says Caroni. Rather, one might argue that the lack of transparency goes against the principles of Switzerland’s constitution.

“According to Article 34, political rights are to be guaranteed in such a way as to ‘protect the free formation of opinion by the citizens and the unaltered expression of their will in ballots’. To form their political opinion freely, voters need to have all the information at their disposal. Information about who is behind a party and who is funding it is surely basic,” she adds.

Pressure from abroad

Attacked so far mainly from the left, the lack of transparency about party funding has attracted the attention of several international organisations.

Though often held up as a model of democracy, Switzerland has been criticised by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) and by the Group of States against Corruption (Greco), which were monitoring the last elections.

Warnings are also heard regularly from Transparency International.

“If we decide to change things, it certainly won’t be because of pressure coming from outside, but only if there is agreement to do it inside the country,” counters Radical parliamentarian Christian Wasserfallen.

“In my view, there is no great need for change, with a consensus system like ours. In Switzerland the main parties are all represented in government and no-one has the upper hand. In countries with a dominant party in power, it is important to know how that particular grouping is being funded.

“In the 2011 elections, the People’s Party had the largest budget to spend, but lost three per cent of their vote. This just goes to show that money is not everything in politics and that the Swiss people do not want any one party to be too strong,” maintains Wasserfallen.

According to him, parliamentarians themselves should be the first to come clean about the sources of their incomes.

Costly campaigns

The strong electoral growth of the People’s Party over the last 20 years even prompted a few Radicals and Christian Democrats to call for transparency of funding in the course of the 2011 election campaign.

But following the rightwing party’s setback at the polls last year, these calls died down.

In March, many parliamentarians from the two centre-right parties joined in rejecting the latest proposal to introduce a set of rules. Senator Christian Democrat Urs Schwaller called for transparent campaign funding for nationwide votes.

This was a mistaken decision, says Caroni.

“The whole political system has changed a great deal in recent decades. Campaigns make use of marketing techniques that cost more and more. The funds expended are growing constantly and so is the need for transparency,” Caroni adds.

“At one time, parties were financed mainly by the contributions of their members. But for some years now, the identification of members with their parties has declined and the political groupings are more and more dependent on outside support,” agrees Hilmar Gernet.

The former secretary-general of the Christian Democratic Party is the author of a book proposing a transparent model of funding with state participation.

Paradoxical refusal

“The current situation is unsatisfactory for everybody - for the parties, which receive money in a rather underhand way and are left with a problem of credibility; for companies, which risk being accused of corruption for lack of transparency; and also for the citizens, who should be able to find out just how the various political camps are being funded,” believes Gernet.

Parliament’s unwillingness to introduce transparent funding is a paradox, he finds, at a time when a majority of parties wants to push the banks to accept a lot more transparency and supports the government’s proposal for a “clean money” and full disclosure strategy in the financial sector.

However, two banks recently caught the politicians by surprise: Raiffeisen – prompted by Gernet, who happens to be a member of the cooperative bank’s board of directors – and Credit Suisse decided that in future they would donate to the major political groupings in a transparent manner.

This move by the two banks, which may well be imitated by others, has put pressure on the parties and left them in something of an awkward position.

“Now the boot is on the other foot,” says Gernet.

Transparent funding

In Switzerland, neither the federal government nor most of the cantons have financial disclosure requirements for political parties and campaigns. Only two cantons – Geneva and Ticino – have so far come up with any rules at all.

Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga intends to present proposals sometime this year to ensure transparency at the federal level. To this end she has commissioned a study, recently completed by Zurich University.

According to this study, the Swiss People’s Party spent 40% of the total campaign funds of the parties in the legislative period 2007–2011. Second came the Radical Party at 25%, the Christian Democrats at 16% and the Social Democrats at 13%. The other parties accounted for the remaining 6%.

Greater transparency is being demanded also by a people's initiative launched by an inter-party committee. The wording calls for more clarity on the incomes of politicians.

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Swiss parties

Swiss politics has for a century been dominated by four major governing parties, which account for about 80% of votes cast: the People’s Party, the Social Democratic Party, the Radical Party and the Christian Democratic Party.

From the 1980s on there emerged a new political force, the Green Party, which captured 8.4% of the votes in the 2011 election. But it has not yet made it into government.

In the past few years two more new parties have emerged and are carving out some political space for themselves, exceeding the 5% mark in the 2011 elections: The Liberal Greens (which broke away from the Greens in 2004) and the Conservative Democratic Party (a split-off from the People’s Party in 2008).

Four minor parties in parliament represent another 5% of the electorate: the Protestant Party, the Christian Social Party, the Lega dei Ticinesi and the Mouvement Citoyen Romand.

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