Government moves to tighten rules on party financing

Jiří Pehe (Photo: Šárka Ševčíková, Czech Radio)

The Czech coalition government has moved to tighten the rules for the financing of political parties. The proposed measures include a 3 million crown ceiling on donations from individual sponsors and a cap on the amount of money that parties can spend on election campaigns. The draft bill also envisages the setting up of an independent body which would supervise the financing of political parties. I asked political commentator Jiří Pehe how he views the proposed measures.

Jiří Pehe (Photo: Šárka Ševčíková, Czech Radio)
“Well, I think that establishing ceilings is in general a good idea because obviously the non-existence of ceilings means that a lot of parties can be hijacked by very rich individuals or that very rich individuals – as we call them oligarchs –can establish their own political movements and spend as much as they want. On the other hand, of course, the problem is also that political parties find ways of spending money without really declaring that they did so. There are all kinds of ways that Czech political parties have developed in which they spend money on their political campaigns indirectly through various associated institutions or various advertising companies with whom they have behind-the-scenes deals for discounts and so on. So unless this is all somehow controlled, unless this new institution that would supervise the spending of political parties will have some possibilities of controlling this indirect spending then this proposal for ceilings will be to some extent toothless.”

In the past this was done by a parliamentary committee which was considered fairly toothless, do you feel that this new institution will be an effective watchdog? Are there guarantees for that?

“Well, we will have to wait and see because it will really depend on how well this institution is protected from those institutions that it is supposed to supervise –that is from political parties. It seems that it should be a fairly small committee of five people but its independence will really depend on how it is selected and how it is protected from political parties. If it is really independent then of course it may be –to some extent – effective because it will be able to at least show how much political parties spend on their campaigns and also to penalize them for behaviour that would contradict the rules for the financing of political parties.”

Minister Andrej Babiš (Photo: ČTK)
Political parties have in the past been loath to change the existing legislation and to tighten the laws for obvious reasons. This particular draft bill was even criticized by one of the coalition leaders – Finance Minister Andrej Babiš –who called it Lex Babiš and said it was directed against his party (ANO) and himself. Do you feel that there will now be enough political will in Parliament to see this through?

“Well, in the past we have seen that the will to push through various pieces of draft legislation on the financing of political parties was insufficient. This time there seems to be at least some consensus within the government and maybe parts of the opposition. What may actually unite the political parties that would otherwise oppose this bill is precisely Mr. Babiš himself. This bill is in some ways Lex Babis as he rightly points out, because political parties are afraid of his money and ability to outspend them. So in some ways the fact that –if approved - it would clearly undermine his political influence may actually unite other political parties that would otherwise not agree to support this bill.”