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Concern as election funding remains under wraps

It’s getting more expensive to be recognised by the electorate (image from 2011 campaign) Keystone

The campaign for the Swiss parliamentary elections on October 18 will be the most expensive in history. At the same time, there is a lack of transparency in party funding.

No political party is obliged to disclose its budget or the names of its supporters. But a survey by of the seven main parties has revealed how much most political parties will spend. (See infobox) 

Officially, their election budgets won’t be much higher than for the last elections four years ago. But these budget figures, which all except the leading conservative right Swiss People’s Party were willing to provide to, represent just the tip of the iceberg. Total expenses will go well beyond the several million Swiss francs forecast.

“There is a tendency among donors to give targeted support to individual candidates and campaigns rather than to parties at the national level. They hope in this way to gain greater influence over political decisions,” explains Hilmar Gernet, director for communications and policy issues at Raiffeisen, Switzerland’s third largest bank.

Gernet, who wrote a book on party financing in 2011, is convinced that this year’s campaign will be the most expensive in Swiss history. Parties and candidates seeking a seat in the Swiss parliament will have to invest between CHF150 ($161 million) and CHF170 million; that is CHF50-70 million more than in the last elections. Since 1999, according to Hilmar Gernet, campaign spending has almost doubled every four years. 

The right to freely form an opinion

Apart from the three cantons that have passed laws on party funding (Ticino, Geneva and Neuchâtel), the state and citizens have no right to oversightExternal link over the amounts or the source of financing of each political grouping. 

“Switzerland and Sweden are the only members of the Council of Europe that have not yet adopted national legislation on the financing of parties and election campaigns,” says Eric Martin, president of the Swiss section of the anti-corruption organisation Transparency InternationalExternal link.

Switzerland, which likes to present itself to the world as a model democracy, would have much to gain, however, from introducing greater transparency, according to Martin. It would strengthen the credibility of its political system and protect the right of its citizens to freely form an opinion.


Criticism from Strasbourg

Instead, Switzerland is regularly singled out by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE)External link and the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECO)External link for its inaction. These warningsExternal link have so far had no effect. “The Council of Europe cannot impose any penalty on the Confederation. At most it can declare it non-compliant, but it won’t go as far as excluding it from its ranks,” notes Martin.

Just last November, the Swiss cabinet refused to give in to GRECO’s injunctions. And although a new report from Strasbourg is expected by the summer, the government does not intend to budge an inch. “For the moment no action is planned at the federal level,” says Jean-Christophe Geiser of the Federal Office of JusticeExternal link.

In parliament, the left has been trying for nearly half a century to institute a minimum of transparency. But in vain. “If Switzerland wants to avoid becoming an American-style democracy, where billionaires can ‘buy’ parties and influence politics, we need a system that guarantees party financing,” argues Michael Sorg, spokesman for the Social Democrats.

Businessman and senator Thomas Minder also came up against a brick wall, despite his “bourgeois” background, with a parliamentary initiativeExternal link in 2013 calling for all donations to political parties or organisations by listed companies to be communicated via an entry in the donor company’s annual report.

The Swiss militia system as argument

How can this apparent archaism be justified in an age when transparency has taken on the status of dogma in many fields of political and business life? The right and centre parties and a majority in the cabinet consider the European demands to be incompatible with direct democracy, which works thanks to the participation of the economic sector in political life. 

“Politicians very often put in a lot of work on behalf of the community, generally without remuneration,” stresses Aurélie Haenni, spokeswoman for the centre-right Radical Party. Additional rules, she concludes, would give rise to an unworkable bureaucracy, a weakening of the parties and even a restriction of fundamental rights, since “an individual’s commitment to a campaign concerns only him or her”.

While the main right and centre parties are standing their ground, the business community has, paradoxically, taken steps towards greater transparency in recent years. The country’s three largest banks, UBS, Credit Suisse and Raiffeisen, as well as the agro-food giant Nestlé, the insurance company AXA Winterthur and Swiss International Air Lines, have all decided to publish their donations to political parties.

“We support the Swiss militia-based political system, independently of the positions of each party,” explains Jean-Paul Darbellay, spokesman for Credit Suisse. The country’s second bank sets aside an annual envelope of one million francs maximum, to be divided among the parties according to the number of parliamentary seats they have at national and cantonal levels. The sole condition is that the party must have at least five seats in the federal parliament.

Opaque pharma giants

It is then up to the parties to accept this money or not. “The Greens have decided to refuse donations from UBS and Credit Suisse for ethical reasons,” explains Balthasar Glättli, head of the Green Party’s parliamentary group. The Social Democrats, meanwhile, say they refuse donations from most banks and insurance companies, thus doing themselves out of a total of over CHF400,000 a year.

However, not all businesses are ready to go along with greater transparency. The pharmaceutical industry is the most reticent, as revealed by a survey by the weekly Handelszeitung earlier this year.

“A change in political culture is inevitable,” author Gernet is nonetheless convinced. “It will first affect the big businesses, which have to justify their expenses to their shareholders, and then by extension the political parties. At the end of the day, the credibility of Swiss democracy is at stake.”

Party budgets for the federal elections

– Swiss People’s Party: not provided

– Social Democratic Party: CHF1.4 million, as in 2011

– Radical Party: CHF3 million, roughly as in 2011

– Christian Democratic Party: CHF2 million, including the campaign for the initiative on tax exemption for family allowances, around the same as in 2011

– Green Party: CHF200,000, as in 2011

– Conservative Democratic Party: CHF500,000, an increase compared with 2011

– Liberal Green Party: CHF300,000, against CHF200,000 in 2011

According to a survey in Le External linkTempsExternal link, during the last federal elections in 2011 candidates seeking election or re-election to the House of Representatives had to pay out over CHF200,000 in Zurich and between CHF50,000 and 60,000 in Vaud, Geneva and Valais. The amount was less in small cantons (CHF10,000). 

Political parties in Switzerland are not funded by the state. During election campaigns, they all benefit from exactly the same services, such as the printing and delivery of ballot papers to all voters and presentation of all the parties in the Federal Chancellery’s explanatory note.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR