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Scandal raises questions over political funding

(Keystone)

A scandal concerning payments made to two politicians has raised questions about political funding in Switzerland.

Opinions are divided over how parties should be funded and whether parliamentarians should be obliged to declare the sources of donations.

Switzerland’s tradition of service to the community extends to its parliamentarians, who do not give up their jobs when they take up their seats – unlike in many other countries.

Although they receive some remuneration for their work, political parties usually rely on contributions from party members or private donors to fund their electoral campaigns.

But doubts over the transparency of this system have been voiced following a scandal over donations made to centre-left Social Democrat parliamentarians Anita Fetz and Roberto Zanetti, who is a member of the cantonal government in Solothurn.

The two politicians accepted SFr30,000 ($24,000) and SFr20,000 in donations which could be traced back to the Pro Facile charitable foundation, of which Fetz and Zanetti were vice-presidents.

Fetz failed to declare this position in her list of interests at parliament.

Both subsequently resigned from the foundation and froze the donations, which were to help fund their electoral campaigns.

Declaration of donations

The Social Democrat parliamentarian and political scientist, Andreas Gross, says that parliamentarians should be obliged to declare all personal donations of over SFr500 and donations to their party of over SFr1,000.

Gross intends to submit this proposal to the Public Institution Committee (PIC), a parliamentary body which looks into matters relating to political institutions.

The plan has garnered support from the political Left - which generally receives its funding from party membership fees rather than through private donations – but the Centre-Right and rightwing parties remain firmly opposed.

Experts say this is mainly because these parties are afraid of losing funding if they are forced to reveal the names of their benefactors.

However, even from within these parties there have been calls for change. Hermann Weyeneth, a member of the People’s Party and head of the PIC, has voiced his support for parliamentarians declaring funding - but only for sums of SFr5,000 or more per individual and SFr10,000 per party.

“It’s not a question of the size of the figures,” said Aliki Panayides, vice secretary-general of the People’s Party, defending the official party line.

“The system works as it is, there is transparency as we can see in the Fetz case,” she added.

More transparency

But critics do not agree. Silvano Moeckli, a political scientist at St Gallen University, told the “Tages-Anzeiger” newpaper that while Switzerland did not need the levels of transparency found in the United States, action still needed to be taken.

The US introduced strict measures following the 1972 Watergate scandal in which revelations of misconduct brought down President Nixon.

“Switzerland must do more to defend the democratic values of transparency and equal opportunities,” he said.

Political analyst Andreas Ladner wrote in the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung” newspaper that a lack of transparency in the system could have serious consequences.

“It could lead to fears that elections would be won not by the best candidates but by those with the biggest budgets,” he said.

“Furthermore, we could go down the road of suspecting that parties and individuals depend too much on their benefactors."

State funding

Experts say one solution could be that the state contributes to party funding, as is the case in neighbouring countries. But the Swiss parliament has rejected all moves towards such a system.

At present, only cantons Geneva and Fribourg make some contribution towards party electoral campaigns.

The parties have to content themselves with indirect funding in the form of state indemnity payments to parliamentary factions, or the quota that they take from the salaries of parliamentarians.

swissinfo, Doris Lucini (translation: Isobel Leybold-Johnson)

Key facts

According to the “Neue Zürcher Zeitung”, Swiss political parties spend on average SFr74 million in an electoral year.
The government pays out about SFr4.5 million a year to parliamentary factions.
Subsidies to parliamentarians amount to about SFr30 million a year, a part of which goes to the parties.

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