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The black hole of party financing

September 5th, 2011

The current party and campaign financing rules make corruption structurally necessary,  left-wing and liberal-conservative pundits agree. Even though the need for a thorough reform of the relevant legislation is widely recognised, decision makers appear unlikely to show either the courage or the willingness to make the system more transparent.

“There are three kinds of political parties in Hungary today. First, the corrupt and competitive. Second, the corrupt and uncompetitive. And finally, the uncorrupt and uncompetitive. Until that changes, Hungary will be lead by corrupt political forces,” suggests Sándor Révész in the left-wing daily Népszabadság, in his commentary on a recent proposal recommending an overhaul of party financing.

In August, Szabolcs Kerék-Bárczy, former spokesman of the Hungarian Democratic Forum (MDF) outlined a possible reform of party and campaign financing in the  liberal weekly Élet és Irodalom. The draft. worked out by the liberal conservative Freedom and Reform Institute set up by Lajos Bokros, MDF MEP and former minister of finance (1995-1996) under the first Socialist government, aims to reduce corruption in party financing.

The current campaign finance laws limit the money spent by individual candidates during electoral campaigns  to 1 million HUF, but analysts across the political spectrum estimate that the real, unregistered spending far exceeds this limit. Kerék-Bárczy blames the survival of the current rules primarily on Fidesz, and recommends that parties should finance all their spending, including campaigns, from public funds. He also proposes that the salaries of MPs should be increased significantly, and that, in order to strengthen transparency, MPs should not be allowed to act as board members of private companies. According to the draft, the public media should broadcast campaign advertisements free for all parties in parliament.

Révész agrees with Kerék-Bárczy that the current practice of campaign financing is  marked by “incredible cynicism, outrageous lies and extreme populism.” He points out that the presence of corruption is an open secret. He also describes as complacent the fact that the salaries of MPs are kept low, which makes politicians inclined to secure their income from other sources.

“I, the tobacco king give your party a lot of money, because I like you. And you will not increase the taxes on tobacco products, because you like me,” Révész writes. As corruption is built into any system which allows individual contributions from party sympathisers, it would be reasonable to ban any use of non-public funds, Révész contends. It is a pity that no one shows interest in such proposals, he concludes.

Politicians themselves are also victims of the system, because it puts them at the mercy of rich supporters with blurred intentions. We should not, however, feel too sorry for them, since they seem to enjoy being ‘kept politicians’. The only time that they stand up against the system, is when they are in disgrace,” Miklós Stemmler notes in the liberal Hírszerző, in a direct reference to the MDF (Kerék-Bárczy’s former party), which did not refrain from an alliance with the Free Democrats who were famous for their dubious ties with road-building enterprises.

Stemmler suggests that it would be almost impossible to break away from the current practice, because those in power who could implement reforms which increase  transparency are not actually interested in facing the public. Since the majority of voters think that too much public money is spent on politicians, increasing the state funding of parties would also lead to public indignation.

“The current system benefits everyone – apart from the economy, public morals and democracy,” Stemmler concludes. “Party financing is the black hole of democracy, which in the long run sucks in everything, including public morals, public funds and finally democracy itself. That is what the government should realise…before it also slips into the black hole.”

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