Call for state funding of political parties to be halved

Czech political parties have probably never been at a lower level of public estimation. So a proposal to halve the generous cash payments to parties by the state as part of the overall belt tightening looks like a popular and winning move. The only problem is that most of the parties do not to share the enthusiasm.

The proposal to halve state payments to the political parties has, ironically, come from one of the parties themselves. The newly-created TOP 09 party says they should share in the overall cost cutting and public spending savings.

Leading TOP 09 figures and former finance minister Miroslav Kalousek outlined his party’s proposal at a news conference on Tuesday. He wants state payments to parties halved almost immediately and continuing for the next three years. He estimates the move could save the state around a billion crowns.

Miroslav Kalousek, Karel Schwarzenberg (right), photo: CTK
Mr Kalousek argues that the parties would have ample time to adapt their spending accordingly — including for lower house elections in the middle of next year — if the move takes place now.

And he wants to table the proposal in the lower house of parliament separately from the ongoing round of haggling over spending cuts and tax-raising measures for the 2010 state budget.

But so far the reception for the idea from other political parities appears cool, to say the least. TOP 09 said on Tuesday that it had not so far received backing from any other political party. That would be vital to push such a proposal through parliament given its handful of members in the lower house.

That is hardly surprising. As a newly-created party with no election history behind it, TOP 09 stands out from other Czech parties. It is reliant on donations rather than state funding.

Former foreign minister and party leader Karel Schwarzenberg stressed on Tuesday that the party’s funding is broad based and transparent:

“If you check on the internet, you will see our donors. We publish everybody with his full name so you can see everybody who has given us something. Thank God there are quite a lot of people in the Czech Republic who support us and give some amount of money. Not the big companies, but there are smaller entrepreneurs, it is private persons and some, I know, who are not so rich but have given what in their position is quite a lot of money. So I am really impressed by the donors.”

For the bigger, long-established parties state payments are vital to their survival. The Czech system of political financing makes annual payments to parties on the basis of every vote they get in elections to the lower house, Senate, regional and European elections as long as their total support is over a certain, low, percentage threshold.

In addition, they get other payments based on the number of seats they have in everything except the European Parliament. And finally, they are given payments to help finance election campaigns to the lower house and European Parliament.

It is estimated that the right-of-centre Civic Democrats altogether received around 200 million crowns in 2008 with the left-wing Social Democrats getting around 130 million.

Miroslav Kalousek, Karel Schwarzenberg (right), photo: CTK
Mr Schwarzenberg admits the current party financing system has largely been devised to suit the main parties and they will not be keen to change it.

“Of course, parties always arrange the system more or less in their own image. I can imagine a better system but it would not be possible to push it through parliament.”

The established parties seem reluctant to change a system that has served them well. What is more, they are currently in relatively poor financial shape after launching campaigns for October lower house elections which have now been postponed until next year. The Social Democrats alone have said the postponement cost them around 100 million crowns.

So if it ever comes to a vote, the TOP 09 proposal for — albeit temporary — cuts in party funding does not look like finding favour with its main beneficiaries.