Four of five parties' MPs back boosting political finances watchdog powers
Four of the five Riigikogu parties say, via their parliamentary whips, that they support a bill which would enhance the powers of party finances watchdog the political Party Funding Supervision Committee (ERJK).
One of the main principles of the bill would see funding adjudged to be an illicit donation going to the state, rather than the original donor, once a 30-day period had passed, a provision likely put in place following the end of a recent, long-running case involving the ruling Center Party.
The bill would also circumvent disputed cases having to progress up all three rungs of Estonia's legal system, to the Supreme Court, for an ultimate ruling, as happened with the recent Center case.
While Center's chief whip Jaanus Karilaid says the party supports the bill, the one dissenting voice is the opposition Conservative People's Party of Estonia (EKRE), whose overall leader, Martin Helme, identifies the ERJK with another opposition party at the opposite end of the political spectrum from EKRE on most issues – the Social Democratic Party (SDE).
Reform Party deputy whip Erkki Keldo says the coalition agreement is party has with Center already envisages boosting the ERJK's powers.
Keldo said: "The precondition is that there be fair, transparent and equal treatment for all."
"If it goes through a round of coordination, how it will actually be implemented, we will definitely have to discuss it in the group and also in the coalition, as well as with other political parties. I cannot say today that I fully agree with everything," Keldo went on.
Some aspects, such as potential for penalty payment, requesting information from third parties and inviting individuals to the ERJK premises were rendered more realistic, Keldo added, and also says that giving expiry dates on the return of prohibited donations and clarifying the recipient were reasonable.
This would allow for oversights, while after 30 days the illicit donation would go to the state coffers.
Keldo also agreed with removing the ceiling on loans which political parties can obtain.
Jaanus Karilad, chief whip of the Center Party, the party which has been the subject of much of the ERJK's scrutiny in recent years and recently paid back a €843,000 sum which had been ruled, ultimately by the Supreme Court, to have constituted an illicit donation, said his party supports the enlargement of the ERJK's powers, adding that its competence also needed augmenting.
He said: "Greater rights mean greater responsibility, as well as a potential workload which cannot be borne solely by members nominated by political parties or individual institutions when it comes to overseeing the same political parties."
The previous coalition Center was in with the Conservatives People's Party of Estonia (EKRE) and Isamaa, had attempted to abolish the ERJK and hand its functions over to the National Audit Office (Riigikontroll), a state body.
EKRE chair Martin Helme says his attitude towards the existence of the ERJK haas always been one of hostility.
He said: "In my opinion, the ERJK has never worked as an impartial oversight body, but it is still clearly under the control of the Social Democrats today and is spying on parties that are unpopular with that party, constantly violating their powers."
Helme added if the ERJK could ot be made more balanced and impartial, in-line with the rule of law, it should be abolished (see above), and its tasks handed over to the audit office.
The ERJK's director, Liisa Oviir, is a former Social Democratic Party (SDE) minister.
Speaking of SDE, its leader, Lauri Läänemets, said that in general the control and coercive measures of the draft would be more concrete and feasible in real life, and it remains incomprehensible as to why the body would need to be lenient with regard to prohibited donations made to political parties.
He said: "The government suggests that once a party has received a prohibited donation, state support for the party may be reduced until the amount of the prohibited donation is received from the state or the donation is returned. But things should be much more specific than that."
Parties receive state support in proportion to their size and representation at the Riigikogu. For instance in the first quarter of this year, the Reform Party (34 seats) took in €432,623 in state subsidy, compared with €127,242 going to SDE (10 seats).
Läänemets added that it should be feasible for this money to be withheld, in the case of a proven illicit donations, effectively as a fine, while there should be a moratorium on further donations to an infringing party, until issues were resolved, he said.
Tighter and more timely control of the availability of funds to parties, particularly when campaigning, had a democratic dimension, Läänemets added.
Following Center's recent payment of its fine, which required grassroots members as well as big-hitters to chip in with donations, while austerity measures were put in place, means that it will necessarily see a scaled-down campaign ahead of the March 2023 general election, compared with previous years, the party said.
A previous ban on outdoor advertising in the weeks leading up to elections is also now no longer in place.
Isamaa whip Priit Sibul said the ERJK bill's provisions were reasonably, but was skeptical on the extent to which some parties would reach agreement.
Sibul said. "Simply put, I would like to see if the coalition parties with a funding history reach an agreement on the changes," an oblique reference to Center.
"The cases of funding of parties that have received a court decision in recent months clearly show that there is a problem and reasonable solutions must be found that would ensure transparent funding and the prosecution of offenders," Sibul went on.
The bill's most fundamental change is the proposal to return illicit donations, not to their donors, but to state coffers.
"This should be a good deterrent and ensure that the donor understands that in case of suspicious transactions, they will lose their money," Sibul said.
The €843,000 Center was recently ordered to pay, following a Supreme Court ruling on the matter, consists of a fine, rather than being returned to the original donor, Midfield OÜ, which reportedly carried out consultancy work for Center in the years 2009-2015.
Follow ERR News on Facebook and Twitter and never miss an update!
Editor: Andrew Whyte