Head of party funding watchdog: NGOs need same level of scrutiny as parties

Liisa Oviir.
Liisa Oviir. Source: Kirke Ert

Liisa Oviir, head of the Political Party Funding Supervision Committee (ERJK), tells ERR in an interview that amendments to the Political Parties Act need to be finally passed. Organizations active in politics but not currently governed by the act constitute a problem as their funding is not transparent.

The coalition agreement aims to change the law to take away a part of state budget support for political parties punished in criminal procedure. Where does the ERJK stand?

It is quite a vague promise and holds no instructions in terms of what is meant by it. ERJK is in charge of overseeing party financing, while there are also other types of criminal offenses.

I would like for us to put the Political Parties Act in order first. We need to fix what's wrong with the current law.

It is very difficult, so as not to say impossible, to hold back state budget support for parties due to faulty regulation. First, it would be necessary to define the crimes for which support sums can be reduced and who is authorized to make such decisions. Also, as concerns the sums, and whether the punishment would be one-off or whether the reductions would apply over a decade.

Finally, the changes must not clash with the Constitution. It must not become a tool for pushing one or more parties out of the picture, remove them from governance and political participation.

The need to amend the Political Parties Act has been talked about for years. How to include the funding reduction for criminal punishments in the amendments. What exactly needs to change?

The process of amending the Political Parties Act started with an attempt to liquidate the ERJK (the proposal was made by EKRE MP Kert Kingo in 2020 – ed.). After that, the next government (of the Reform Party and Center Party – ed.) decided to improve the act, which process was left in limbo. The ERJK added a proposal to concretize the procedures of holding back state budget support.

While the existing bill states that up to 20 percent of a party's state budget support can be taken away, it does not provide whether this concerns annual sums or a different period. As long as these things remain undecided, reduction of the sums cannot be executed, which is what the ERJK is tasked with.

There are myriad unresolved issues. For example, the part about late fees is virtually unpracticable. The regulation of associate organization is highly inadequate as Estonia formally has no such organizations! They exist, of course, but are currently out of the scope of the ERJK.

The last time cosmetic changes were introduces to the Political Parties Act was in 2014. But the [political] environment has changed quite a lot since then, as have society's expectations for the ERJK. The Committee receives many reports which it forwards to the police or other organs with the authority to process them. The ERJK is not an investigative body and lacks relevant capacity.

We will have nine members starting from next week when Aleksei Jašin from Eesti 200 joins. We also have an advisor and a half so to speak. It is very difficult to take on new obligations with such a [small] team. Extra funding has not materialized beyond promises so far.

The coalition agreement has another vague promise. It pledges to ramp up supervision of political parties and organizations to ensure fair competition. It also seeks to regulate non-party political associations. These promises might also concern your committee.

I would hope so, while we've seen all manner of promises over the years. They have always died away. It is difficult to get to decisions and action as these things concern the decisionmakers themselves. Democracy could finally reach a point where ideas and capacity are worth more than the campaign funding volume.

Should regulation of non-party political associations rather concern election coalitions at local elections or NGOs tasked with promoting a worldview? SALK and SAPTK serve as examples of the latter.

I would very much like to hope it concerns both. Election coalitions and parties' associate organizations both need regulating.

Estonia has no regulation for elections coalitions, while they play an important part in local government council elections. Their members serve on local councils and participate in running municipalities next to party politicians.

We must also think abut regulating NGOs which have publicly said they promote certain policies. It should, at the very least, make sure they are not financed by foreign capital.

They should not be paid from abroad?

Exactly. We have seen hostile countries' influence attempts in our region moving through such organizations that meddle in politics. Funding coming from a hostile country is definitely a problem.

I do not wish to hamper civil initiative in any way. Everyone is entitled to their own worldview and its dissemination, while one needs to be a citizen for that, not a representative of malicious foreign intent.

Should such organizations be as transparent as political parties? In the case of the latter, we can find the names of donors in ERJK reports. Should we also know the names of SALK and SAPTK sponsors?

That is up to politicians to decide.

Should the rules that apply to parties also cover such associations? For example, that only private individuals can donate.

The principles could be similar.

Various models are in use elsewhere. In some countries, legal persons can also donate. In Estonia, donations, whether money or services, are automatically illicit when they come from a legal person.

However, the regulation should be uniform in principle. For example, private individuals of other countries also cannot donate to Estonian parties today, which principle should apply to all active political associations.

While the comparison is fitting, many NGOs dabble in matters that are loosely tied to politics. Should they also be governed by this regulation, or should it be reserved for ideological associations?

That has been the most difficult question in relevant debates, making sure checks do not go too far and get in the way of organizations working for the good of local communities. However, political NGOs active on the nationwide level should have an elevated reporting obligation.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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