Lauri Läänemets: Shortcomings in party funding supervision security risk

Lauri Läänemets.
Lauri Läänemets. Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The world has changed and with it threat assessments, which is why we should amend the Political Parties Act in a way to protect our democratic electoral and decision-making processes and sovereignty, Lauri Läänemets writes.

Political parties play an instrumental role in converging and representing the political ideas of individuals on the level of central and local administration. That is why parties' activities should be transparent and trustworthy.

The Political Parties Act and party funding supervision are both outdated, with the problem in especially sharp focus considering the security situation where hostile foreign agents' motivation to meddle in our domestic politics is the highest it has been in decades. Lackluster supervision renders our parties and domestic political decision-making processes more vulnerable.

Party financing cannot be subject to misunderstandings

Parties should instill certainty in their voters, irrespective of their ideological persuasion. That is why party financing serves as the basis for political security, independence and people's trust.

Unfortunately, financing scandals and questionable funding of sprawling elections campaign have undermined the credibility of several parties and called into question their political independence. Doubts in terms of party funding directly harm our democratic values and decision-making processes, even our sovereignty.

In a situation where party candidates tend to be elected ahead of independents, there cannot be misunderstandings or doubts concerning the financing of political parties. The reality in Estonia is different and suspicions of serving the interests of influential businessmen have followed several parties that have spent decades in the Riigikogu and local councils.

If until recently, it has been largely a matter of corruptive tendencies and suspicions, we are operating in an entirely new security situation today, which is why we need to bring party funding under more stringent control.

Russia no longer makes it a secret that they have in the past and plan to continue meddling in the elections of other countries. Russian businessman, founder of the Wagner mercenary company Yevgeni Prigozhin has admitted meddling in U.S. presidential elections and plans to do it again.

Latvia's Minister of Justice Janis Bordan said in October that Russia could have funded no fewer than four Latvian political parties before the last elections. We know of numerous examples from Western Europe – Austria, France etc. It would be extremely naive to believe that Russian money is not looking for a way into Estonian politics.

On expanding the ERJK mandate

Despite the complicated security situation, fundamental changes to party funding and corresponding supervision have not been made for eight years. The world has changed, as have risk assessments, based on which we should make necessary changes to the Political Parties Act to protect our democratic electoral and decision-making processes and sovereignty.

It is downright peculiar how Estonia is introducing back-to-back changes in financial supervision, while transparency of funding of the very parties guiding these processes has completely stagnated. There have been several opportunities. For example, draft regulation to amend the Political Parties Act and Credit Institutions Act from this May the principles highlighted in which should be implemented post haste.

More specifically, we are talking about giving broader powers to the Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK), updating rules governing illicit donations and an effective way to identify parties' so-called associate organizations.

The bill includes a series of smaller changes that would help us determine the origins of money received by parties. It is important to note that this is not a recent political initiative as relevant proposals were introduced by the Ministry of Justice back in 2021.

I suggested the justice minister (Isamaa's Lea Danilson-Järg – ed.) expedite these proposals in September as boycotting the bill is not fair to voters in the current security situation and considering looming elections. We need to give the parliament, as the supreme decision-making body, the chance to debate these proposals.

Enabling these control measures and thus empowering the ERJK is especially topical now when the risk of foreign agents looking for ways to meddle in our domestic politics is greater it has been for decades. In addition to information operations, it is the potential vulnerability of parties that the enemy could use to influence domestic political processes and destabilize society.

Greater transparency in party funding is a matter of national security, international reputation and political stability. We need to know who is funding our parties and why for which purpose the ERJK is the first contact watchdog that can notify law enforcement if it has doubts. That is why it is important we expand the committee's powers.

Politically, we could always ask whether it needs to be possible to basically buy influence using sprawling elections campaigns in the first place. The Social Democrats have found for years that elections campaigns could take a spending ceiling to boost the quality of debates instead of competing in terms of sheer campaign volume.

The main question at elections should not be who can afford to be the most visible in the streets or on television. If we want elections to contribute to the development of our democracy instead of manufacturing polarization, we should pour more resources in explanation and awareness and less in campaign materials.

I have presented the proposals to amend the Political Parties Act to the Riigikogu Legal Affairs Committee. The Ministry of Justice has all but completed the bill, while the question remains whether the justice minister is prepared to put it to the Riigikogu. Should the minister consider it to be unnecessary, relevant changes can be initiated on the parliamentary level and without the ministry's initiative.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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