No Swiss state funding for political parties? Not so fast.

Representatives of Switzerland's youth party take part in a debate. Youth parties are the only ones who receive direct financial contributions from the Swiss state. Keystone

State funding for Swiss political parties does exist, despite popular belief. Two young political science researchers estimate the state’s contributions at about CHF20 million ($20.6 million) - but most of the funding is indirect.

This content was published on September 15, 2017 minutes

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The long-accepted mantra in Switzerland has been that party financing is strictly a private matter and that Swiss federal coffers provide no funding to political parties. 

Virtually all European countries finance parties with state funding, often supplying a considerable part of their budgets. No fewer than 130 countries finance parties directly, as an overview from the Electoral Knowledge NetworkExternal link shows. That makes Switzerland an exception – or so the story goes.

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But despite the taboo over direct payments, money from public coffers flows into party accounts in Switzerland, too. This occurs through indirect channels, write Lukas Leuzinger and Claudio Kuster, two young political scientists, in their politics blog Napoleon’s NightmareExternal link. In their article titled “What was that again about ‘no public finance for parties’?” they estimate the financing amounts to CHF20 million annually. 

Here are some of the ways political parties are financed in Switzerland: 

Parliamentary group contributions 

These are paid to parliamentary groups in the Swiss legislature. A parliamentary group needs to have at least five members of parliament, usually from the same party or parties with similar platforms. The current total value of state contributions to parliamentary groups is CHF7.5 million, and this is likely to increase. 

Mandate contributions 

Political parties require their officials (members of the government and parliament, judges, and politicians on the cantonal and municipal levels) to pay a part of their income into party coffers. The total contributions amount to about CHF5 million. 

Tax deductions

Any donor to a political party can deduct the amount donated from income taxes. This tax deduction costs the federal state about CHF10 million per year. 

Direct payments to youth parties

As part of statutory subsidies to promote youth, the youth parties receive direct subsidies from the state as an exception. They amount to CHF290,000 annually. 

Campaign costs rebate

In another exception to the rule, the cantons of Fribourg and Geneva make direct payments to political parties after elections. In order to qualify, the parties or their candidates must achieve certain targets: 20% of the votes in canton Geneva, 1% in Canton Fribourg (this also applies to national elections). 

Contributions to election advertising

Some cantons give the parties discounts for the cost of distributing election propaganda. Their leaflets are enclosed in an official envelope along with the formal voting documents. In addition, parties can hang their posters on public property before elections. 

Such indirect party financing by the state is not problematic, Leuzinger and Kuster conclude in their research. But they argue it is “hypocritical” to dismiss demands for more transparency by saying that public financing for political parties doesn’t exist in Switzerland. 


The eternal subject of party funding

Calls by international bodies for more transparency in Swiss party funding are ignored year after year. 

Demands for exposure have been issued by Transparency International, among others, but above all by Greco, the Group of States Against Corruption at the Council of Europe. 

Recently, there have been some signs of movement, not due to external pressures but because of pressure from within Switzerland. In early August, the petition “For more transparency in political funding” was launched by a movement of people from the political Left. 

More than 120,000 Swiss citizens have signed the petition demanding that parties declare the origins of any donations higher than CHF10,000.

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