While political parties told their funding watchdog that they did not commission sociological studies from NGO SALK before the 2023 elections, these claims clash with prior information, prompting ERJK to keep investigating the matter.
The Political Parties Financing Surveillance Committee (ERJK) met on Wednesday to discuss whether political parties have received benefits in the form of study results and counseling from the Liberal Citizen Foundation (SALK) without paying for them, which can be interpreted as an illicit donation.
The committee found that no decision can be made based on recent information.
"Predictably, parties told us that they commissioned nothing and paid for nothing, but because these statements and those made by involved parties in the media include possible inconsistencies, we will need to collect more evidence," said Kaarel Tarand, deputy chair of the ERJK.
He added that since SALK's head Tarmo Jüristo has offered to appear in front of the committee, the ERJK will take him up on the offer next.
Tarand added that even if party members have told journalists different things than what is reflected in political parties' letters to the ERJK, it is not enough to serve as proof.
"This is not an isolated case or the only question we have regarding external policymakers. We need to comply with the law, collect evidence and make decisions in accordance, while this does not change what we have been saying for years in terms of the need to modernize the Political Parties Act to add legal clarity. The world is changing, while the activities of parties' associate organizations are still unregulated," Tarand said.
"The legislator will need to put it on its agenda – it is a vital question, how to protect politics from unwanted external influence and money, while ensuring a free and level playing field."
Parties claim they've neither commissioned nor paid for anything
Reform Party secretary Timo Suslov wrote in his reply to the watchdog that the party has not commissioned studies, advertising or other services from NGO SALK.
"SALK representatives met with members of the party and shared the results of their research following their own initiative. The latter reflected the situation and attitudes Reform was already aware of," he said.
Suslov added that Reform has commissioned and paid for surveys when preparing for elections but never from SALK.
Center Party's secretary general Andre Hanimägi wrote that Tarmo Jüristo had given him access to weekly polls data. He said that Jüristo showed him the website where the data could be accessed and appeared in front of the party's board to explain it following a request from Hanimägi.
Parempoolsed also said they have not ordered or received services from SALK.
"We have been in touch with the team at SALK both in the form of meetings and phone calls and been given access to the salk.ee portal, which our information suggests has also been granted to many other organizations, parties, journalists and opinion leaders. The party's deputy chairman Kristjan Vanaselja said that as far as Parempoolsed are aware, SALK has not charged anyone for access to their website.
"It has not been possible to commission SALK's services – they maintain that and it is confirmed by the experience of the Social Democratic Party (SDE), the latter secretary general Reili Rand told the ERJK. SDE has not commissioned or paid for services from SALK," she emphasized.
She said that SALK's analysis included things SDE agreed with, while there were also recommendations the party did not wish to follow. "SALK and SDE had slightly different goals – SALK wished to minimize the conservative forces' vote yields at all costs, while SDE wanted to maximize its votes at the expense of liberal competitors."
Eesti 200 also said it has not ordered or paid for surveys or other services from SALK.
"We worked with Kantar Emor during our campaign," said Kadri Napritson-Acuna, Eesti 200 board member.
"There were meetings with SALK, similarly to many other organizations and networks who showcased their research and whose policy recommendation we used in our campaign," she explained.
Isamaa said that it has neither commissioned nor looked at SALK research.
"I assure you that Isamaa has not sought or received any services from SALK during the election campaign. As a result, Isamaa has also not paid SALK for services nor does it plan to do so in the future," the party's secretary general Priit Sibul said.
The ERJK's investigation is largely based on an article published in the June 6 issue of Eesti Ekspress that treats with SALK activities before 2023 parliamentary elections, more specifically supporting liberal parties through advice and video ads.
The article revealed that current Parempoolsed members, who used to belong to the Isamaa party, were given access to SALK data on Isamaa supporters. SALK allegedly gave the Center Party advice on what to do about the switch to teaching in Estonian.
Editor: Marcus Turovski