The Ministry of Justice is working on an amendment plan to give the Political Parties Supervision Committee (ERJK) slightly broader powers and obligate parties to transfer illicit donations to state proceeds.
If a political party is caught accepting an illicit donation, current legislation obligates it to return the money to the sponsor. Minister of Justice Maris Lauri (Reform) believes this possibility could only be retained if the money is returned immediately, not once the party has been caught.
"But if the party holds on to the money and starts stalling repayment, perhaps such sums should be paid into the state budget," Lauri said. The ministry will include the proposal in its amendment roadmap.
Deputy chair of the ERJK Kaarel Tarand said that people making donations aren't currently risking much, while parties stand to benefit greatly.
"Unto people pursuing such transactions with their own firms or those owned by friends. Taking money our of the company and putting it back in later, buying services from one's own firm etc.," Tarand explained. "It would be a different story if donations deemed illicit would not make it back to the inner circle."
The ministry also wants to complement the committee's toolbox.
Lauri said that people are currently not obligated to give statements to the committee, while that may change in the future.
"The ERJK is short on powers that many other watchdogs enjoy. This has made it difficult to verify hints and question people," the minister suggested.
The committee would also get the right to require third persons to present documentation.
"In a situation where parties' main campaign partners are not under obligation to disclose whether discounts were offered to particular customers, suspicions will remain, while we have no access to the truth," Tarand said, describing the amendment as necessary.
The amendment roadmap is also looking for a solution for involving parties' associate organizations in funding supervision.
"They have youth wings, women's organizations, seniors' clubs," Lauri said. "Some parties count donations to these organizations as donations to the party, while there are also situations where organizations associated with the party are taking in money that is not counted as funding for the party."
Lauri said it requires further discussion how associate organizations need to be specified.
The law currently states that the political party needs to be a member or founder of such bodies. No associate organization of a party has been registered in Estonia.
Center Party board member Jaanus Karilaid also said a new definition should be sought now.
"It is a problem, one that needs to be addressed and the matter rendered more transparent. All parties that have such hidden associate organizations, they should drag them into the light," Karilaid said. "I believe that campaign reports would also become even more transparent and legible then."
Karilaid: ERJK could be more impartial
Then coalition partners the Conservative People's Party (EKRE), Isamaa and Center proposed handing supervision of party funding over to the National Audit Office last spring. The proposal read that the current committee lacks sufficient resources and powers for effective control.
Maris Lauri said that the planned amendment could solve the latter problem.
"And once it has greater powers, it would inevitably need more resources to do its job," she said.
The committee is not expecting much. Kaarel Tarand said that the ERJK could have two full-time advisers instead of the current 1.2 positions. "We need a legal specialist and a financial specialist," Tarand said.
Jaanus Karilaid found that the committee's work organization should also be discussed when putting together the amendment.
"It is not a question of the exact mechanism. The important thing is for it to be efficient, comprehensible and for the principle of equal treatment to be upheld. So that it would have energy and authority enough to look beyond a single party."
Tarand also urged looking at the bigger picture. He said that the justice ministry is highlighting the right concerns and offering sensible solutions, while the Political Parties Act requires more fundamental debate.
"Whether the situation of the past 15 years where companies cannot donate to political parties, with the latter given generous state budget financing as compensation, is justified and right? Whether we have achieved what the decision sought to achieve in 2005?" Tarand asked. "It has not been achieved as I see it," he said.
The ERJK deputy chair also said it could be discussed how to motivate parties to pay more attention to their income. "We can compare the situation to that of cultural establishments who are told that while you have some state support, doing new things requires own revenue."
Supporting parties not elected to the Riigikogu was Tarand's third proposal.
"One simple solution would be to calculate the state budget support not based on Riigikogu mandates but number of votes cast at elections," Tarand offered. "We could basically attach a price on every vote for four years."
Editor: Marcus Turovski