Marek Reinaas: Money and wheels
Blocking a party punished in criminal procedure from participating in elections would likely not be possible in the democratic world. But the least we could do would be to strip political parties that have accepted illegal donations of state budget support, Marek Reinaas writes.
Parties grappling with accusations of corruption forming the new government has once again brought to the surface the topic of party financing. The question of how to lessen parties' appetite for dirty money.
On the one hand, it is a justified question to say the least – the public is completely fed up with suspicious plastic bags, white sweaters, cash found in dressers belonging to mothers-in-law and Porto Francos.
Chairman of the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) Kaarel Tarand has even proposed boosting state budget funding of parties as it has not been done in 15 years. I do not believe that to be a good idea. Rather, state funding for political parties should be cut further.
Every cent spent
As an entrepreneur, I know that the amount of available resources makes no difference if the organization if inefficient – everything gets spent eventually. If things are not going right, one needs to start by going over and sorting out expenses.
Elections require the most money from parties. Unfortunately, recent experience has shown that the more you spend on advertising, the more votes you get. The support of voters is not secured with the help of bright ideas and visions for the future. Love is a commodity.
Votes are the only currency that matters to parties, which is why it is where the current political system has run aground. Parties are willing to do whatever it takes to get votes and there is no hope of campaign expenses coming down on their own.
We have reached a harebrained situation where the Estonian political system spends a lot more money to bring a single person to the ballot box than its counterparts in the UK or Germany.
If socially sensible behavior cannot be inspired voluntarily, we must turn to state coercion. That is also what needs to happen regarding election campaigns. The most practical method would be to introduce a ceiling on election expenses.
As an advertiser, I can say with certainty that half a million euros buys a strong campaign over two months that has the potential to reach every voter and showcase parties' ideas. Riigikogu parties currently spend many times that and would like to spend even more.
Talk of it being impossible to measure squandering on advertising cannot be taken seriously in 2021. Everything can be measured down to a single second and cent. One simply needs to want to do it. If it is impossible to spend endlessly on campaigns, secretaries general can stop running around the city with empty plastic bags and municipal politicians erecting obstacles on companies' paths so that these self-made problems could then be solved in exchange for support.
Another good way to clean up the current political system would be to introduce meaningful punishments. The situation today is that parties resort to underhanded tactics during elections, collect illegal donations, employ corruption to fill the treasury and use the money to pursue a grand campaign. This buys them as many representatives as possible in the Riigikogu.
Because state budget support depends on seats in the parliament, parties end up in the black. And even if it proves necessary to return illicit donations and pay fines, it is done using taxpayer euros. The very people lured to the ballot box to vote for a corrupt party end up paying for these fines. The system is completely harebrained.
Looking for similes with the world of sports, use of illicit support at elections could be compared to doping. Dirty money buys you an edge over the competition.
Dopers are caught and publicly condemned in the world of sports. In politics, dopers qualify for state support and can busy themselves at coalition talks, leaving the taxpayer with the bill.
Blocking a party punished in criminal procedure from participating in elections would likely not be possible in the democratic world. But the least we could do would be to strip political parties that have accepted illegal donations of state budget support.
The current system sees rogues who get caught doping return not the gold medal and the prize but the doping syringe. The state and taxpayers should not have to pay for corrupt organizations punished in criminal procedure.
As a businessman, I am sincerely baffled at the inefficiency of the organizations that make up the current political system.
The Center Party and the Reform Party are very similar. They have tens of thousands of members between them, employ dozens of people and receive millions from the state budget. And yet, the coalition agreement they come up with is a high school-level essay of a few dozen pages that could just as well be titled "My Dream Vacation."
State support for political parties should be aimed at creating policies. In reality, the money is spent on election campaigns and fines for violations. There is an Estonian saying according to which money makes the wheels go round, while the wheels of parties are grinding and creaking – the political system has seized up and desperately needs a restart.
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Editor: Marcus Turovski