Lawyer and former justice chancellor Allar Jõks says the government's attempt to removed the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK), placing its functions under the auspices of the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll), is a step towards placing democracy under quarantine, adding that the coalition wants to feather its nest in office. The main issue at stake is the independence of the ERJK, which comprises representatives of all political parties, as well as questions of whether placing it under the audit office's remit would reduce, not enhance, funding watchdog activities.
"I think the goal is to feel comfortable in the government. /.../ But let's say that if the heads of the judges could not be made to fly, now we want to make the heads of the party's funding guardians fly," Jõks said, speaing on ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera" Sunday night.
Jõks was referring to long-held criticisms of judicial independence from members of the Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE). Last year, EKRE also opposed the re-selection of Lavly Perling as prosecutor general. Perling's term expired at the end of October 2019 and was replaced by Andres Parmas in January this year.
"If we think a little further, If it succeeds, we will still have a lot of negative surprises coming," Jõks added on "Aktuaalne kaamera".
Center Party received largest precepts from ERJK
The largest precepts in financial terms the ERJK has issued in its x-year history related to the ruling Center Party, ERR's online news in Estonian reports, and are:
- 2017: precept issued relating to €110,000 in anonymous donations over the period 2014-2015. The matter awaits a Supreme Court decision (the ERJK would be granted the right to issue penalties by the lower level courts).
- Also in 2017, the ERJK issued a precept to Center over an anonymous donation given to the state, of €220,000, in respect of a sale of a house in Tartu in 2011. The house belonged to a party member. This precept was complied with following a Supreme Court ruling as reported by ERR News here.
- In 2019 the ERJK ordered Center to return a little over €1 million for services received for free from a private limited company, Midfield, 2009-2016. The administrative court is to hear this case in September.
Opposition MP: Government rushing into things without consultation
Opposition Social Democratic Party (SDE) MP Liia Hänni, board member of the union of NGOs (Vabaühenduste liit) , said that the coalition is rushing into the change and has not consulted the audit office itself.
This unilateral pattern should not be allowed to continue unabated, Hänni said.
"This is the type of evil legislation that we have been trying to get away from in Estonia, where future laws, bills affect those who know nothing about what is happening. We simply cannot tolerate such actions of state power as citizens," Hänni said.
Should the bill pass a Riigikogu vote, as per standard procedure it would need to go to President Kersti Kaljulaid to be signed into force. The president can, and sometimes does, return legislation to the Riigikogu.
Both Hänni and Jõks said that in their opinion the bill as it stands may be unconstitutional.
"I sincerely hope that if this law is passed in this way … and with this content, the president will not promulgate it on the basis of the Constitution of the Republic of Estonia. I seriously hope so. /.../ seriously hope so. /.../ The contentious issue is that you can't arbitrarily assign tasks to the audit office as well as, for instance, the Chancellor of Justice," Jõks said.
Courts generally come down on ERJK's side
The ERJK was set up in 2011 and in that time has issued a total of 82 injunctions to political parties, which has resulted in a smaller number of initiated proceedings either because the fault the body identified was rectified before the injunction was received, or, at the other end of the scale, the ERJK had to discontinue proceedings due to a lack of sufficient powers to investigate further.
Twenty-three of the aforementioned 82 injunctions have been challenged in the court, with the majority going through two levels of the Estonian court system and some reaching the Supreme Court (the Estonian court system is organized on three tiers, county, circuit and Supreme courts-ed.).
The courts have to date upheld all the ERJK's injunctions and come down on the side of the body.
Most precepts concerned the prohibted use of public funds, particularly following the 2013 and 2017 local elections.
The three coalition parties submitted the bill to remove the ERJK and place its functions in the hands of the audit office last week.
The ERJK is tasked with checking the compliance of the activities of a political party, electoral bloc and individual candidate with the requirements provided for in the Political Parties Act.
The term of office on the ERJK is five years and its activities are financed from the state budget. In addition to representatives of the parliamentary parties, the committee already also includes representatives from the audit office, the as well as the justice chancellor's office and the National Electoral Committee (VVK).
ERJK chair Liisa Oviir is a member of SDE; vice chair Kaarel Tarand does not currently belong to any political party, according to the commercial register. Board members from Center (Kersti Sarapuu), EKRE (Siim Pohlak) and Isama (Priit Sibul) are also present.
Former ERJK member: Making decisions by show of hands questionable
Center Party MP Tõnis Mölder sat on the ERJK for three years and was a substitute member prior to that. Recalling committee meetings, he told "Aktuaalne kaamera" that decisions taken by vote was the most questionable activity, adding it is not right for politicians to control their own finances, hence why the audit office was a better bet.
"There have been a lot of different cases on the table during the ERJK's history. Then there have been situations where one party had received a precept, but another party, whose politician participated in the decision, was presented as an expert," Mölder said.
The coalition party leaders says that the bill aims to make oversight of party funding fair and objective.
"All the noise surrounding it, as if we were going to start stuffing something, which has again been amplified irresponsibly by the press, is absolutely not true," said Conservative People's Party (EKRE) leader and interior minister Mart Helme.
Tõnis Mölder said that the bill had been discussed at coalition level for a long time, was a joint decision from the three parties (Center, EKRE and Isamaa-ed.) and the debate on the bill is still ahead at the Riigikogu.
"I think the subject is fresh enough that parliament has not even managed to start the right debate in this House. So even before the debate has taken place, it is assumed that everything is over and it is the end of the world, whereas it is not. This overview of party funding is placed with a high confidence, and in fact all the demands placed on political parties today will remain in place with this bill, it is simply [the body that oversees] control of it that twill change. And this control will be taken away from the parties and handed over to the state audit office," Mölder said.
ERJK had a difficult birth
As noted the ERJK was founded in 2011. Debates preceding it at the Riigikogu were lengthy and heated, ERR's online news in Estonian reports.
The previous body responsible for funding oversight, the electoral committee, felt itself not the right body for the job, a view shared by the-then Chancellor of Justice Indrek Teder, who in 2009 had suggested the duties ought to be handed over to the audit office.
The Riigikogu's Committee on Constitutional Affairs also debated for a long period who should belong to the committee, in addition to politicians.
Allar Jõks was Chancellor of Justice 2001-2008.
Editor: Andrew Whyte