Funding of political life in Switzerland still lacks transparency

Both the government and parliament have dug in their heels on the issue of transparency in political funding. Keystone / Str

Switzerland is known for its system of direct democracy and part-time politicians, but also for its lack of transparency when it comes to funding of political parties and campaigns.

This content was published on September 25, 2020 minutes

This is the only country in the Council of Europe that hasn’t passed legislation to regulate political funding, something it is regularly criticised for by the Council’s Group of States against Corruption (GRECOExternal link). Only a few cantons have adopted their own legislation.

There is no sign of change, either: both the government and parliament have dug in their heels on the issue. The House of Representatives just rejected an indirect counter-proposal to the people’sExternal link initiative “for greater transparency in funding of political life”, after having watered it down to almost nothing. The Senate will now to study the issue, but the nation’s voters will probably end up having another say in a referendum.

“This is a lost opportunity and it is very regrettable”, says Martin Hilti, who heads the NGO Transparency International SwitzerlandExternal link. “It shows once again what has become clear in the past few years: both government ministers and members of parliament have major problems with the idea of transparency.”

Call to order from GRECO

Both the counter-proposal and the initiative were hailed by GRECO, which is encouraging Switzerland to make an effort and implement one or other of these proposals. In its lastExternal link report dated September 2019, the group cited this progress as a response to its charges of non-conformity against Switzerland. The Swiss are supposed to file a report by the end of the year informing GRECO of developments. Then the Council of Europe body will respond.

During the debate in the House of Representatives, parties of the left tried to add teeth to the counter-proposal, but all of these attempts were in vain. So when it came to the final vote, the left decided to vote against it.

One party on the right rejected the proposal in its entirety, and another wanted to water it down with a view to passing a fairly innocuous piece of legislation.

“Parliament sadly let it be known that it is incapable of regulating itself”, said Green Party parliamentarian Lisa Mazzone, who is deputy chair of the initiative committee. “This clearly shows that the people need to have their say on this issue, and the initiative is the right way to get some legislation on the funding of politics.”

Q&A with Katya Andrusz, spokesperson for the OSCE’s Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights

The ODIHR follows developments related to democratic governance in all 57 countries in the OSCE. ODIHR flags issues around weak regulations with national authorities, observes elections, reviews draft legislation and laws, and offers expertise and assistance to institutions responsible for overseeing political financing. In Switzerland, there is almost no regulation or transparency around the financing of political parties and campaigns. Is this exceptional in the OSCE?

Katya Andrusz: We don’t compare practices or legislation across OSCE countries, as this would be like comparing apples with pears. It would be fair to say Switzerland is a rare example of a country with zero regulation at the federal level, but at the same time some regulation at the cantonal level, a trend that has grown over the yearsExternal link. In Switzerland, the ODIHR observed the last federal elections (2007, 2011, 2015) and wrote reports with recommendations. How has the situation changed or improved over this time?

K.A.: Several initiatives emerged on the cantonal and now also the federal level to regulate political finance, as we noted in our assessment report ahead of last year’s parliamentary election. These steps are small but nevertheless important; we’re aware that such changes do not happen overnight. According to the ODIHR, what should Switzerland still improve in the financing of political parties and campaigns? 

K.A.: It needs to develop a legal framework and rules on the federal level for the financing of political parties, their regular activities and election campaigns. We note the initiative at the federal level to regulate this issue, and ODIHR would be ready to assist the authorities in this process if requested. Why is transparency in the financing of political parties and electoral campaigns so important? 

K.A.: It’s crucial to build and maintain public trust, to stamp out corruption, and to prevent conflicts of interest. It also helps voters make an informed choice, so that they know who is funding politicians’ activities and whether these activities are motivated by the source of financing or by citizens’ needs. The transparency of party and campaign financing is a benchmark of democratic representation.

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Donors scared off?

One part of the political right thought that the counter-proposal was too onerous from an administrative point of view. “We are going to create a bureaucratic monster that is out of control. It will cost a great deal, and will not add much value in terms of  transparency – for any of those involved in direct democracy,” declared Michaël Buffat, speaking for the conservative Swiss People’s Party.

Another argument put forward by parliamentarians on the right was respect for donors’ privacy. “Someone has the right to make a donation without the whole world knowing that he has money and what his political views are,” declared Buffat. There are fears that donors will be more reluctant to open their purse-strings if their involvement is made public knowledge.

Hilti doesn’t buy this argument. “There is not the slightest evidence that donations went down in cantons that already have transparency rules, and the same is apparent in other jurisdictions,” he says. “Take the United Kingdom, which is similar to the Swiss situation, where political donations come mainly (4/5) from private business: after new legislation was introduced in 2000, there was no change in the amount of political donations.”

Part-time politicians

Another justification used by parties of the right is that Switzerland has non-professional politicians without a full state salary. They see no need to legislate in this area. “They have this cosy old-fashioned picture of political life where everybody knows everybody else and everyone is nice,” says Mazzone.

“Whereas we know that, just like everywhere else, when decisions are taken at the government level there is a great deal at stake, and campaigns cost a huge amount of money.”

There have been many proposals to parliament in recent years to establish some rules of transparency. All of them got nowhere. “I really have trouble relating to this attitude and these decisions, for transparency is part of modern democracy,” says Hilti.

For Mazzone, parliament is not ready to be up-front about all the financial interests that are going on behind the scenes in political campaigns.

“They just keep saying that our democracy is the finest in the world, and they do this to disguise one of its key aspects, which is funding. I have a big problem with that, for it is a breach of trust with the voter and keeps information hidden that would be highly relevant to forming a political opinion. In the final analysis, it is destructive of politics itself.”

Adapted from French by Terence MacNamee.

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