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Campaign money limit a "useless law" say experts, politicians

ELECTION campaign 2002 has caused tax advisors, watchdog organisations and politicians to rethink the effectiveness of the existing Sk12 million ($222,000) limit on expenses for party promotion prior to elections.
The law on limiting party expenses during election campaigns has existed since 1994, and as yet, authorities have never found any financial inconsistencies. However, the country remembers a number of lavish election campaign appearances, like that of supermodel Claudia Schiffer, who came to support Vladimír Mečiar of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) prior to the 1998 general vote.

ELECTION campaign 2002 has caused tax advisors, watchdog organisations and politicians to rethink the effectiveness of the existing Sk12 million ($222,000) limit on expenses for party promotion prior to elections.

The law on limiting party expenses during election campaigns has existed since 1994, and as yet, authorities have never found any financial inconsistencies. However, the country remembers a number of lavish election campaign appearances, like that of supermodel Claudia Schiffer, who came to support Vladimír Mečiar of the Movement for a Democratic Slovakia (HZDS) prior to the 1998 general vote.

Experts and some politicians are now questioning the usefulness of what they call a "law full of holes that can easily be got around," said Ernest Valko, a former constitutional lawyer.

The Finance Ministry, which is authorized to control parties' election spending, admits that it lacks the capacity to carry out thorough check ups. Meanwhile, legal and tax experts say that the existing legislation is so vague that even if inconsistencies were found, weaknesses in the law could provide a defense against possible charges.

"That law can't be fixed. Sometimes I feel it should simply be thrown away," Valko said at a seminar organised by the Alliance for the Support of Fair Play (APFP), a local election watchdog that has asked several parties to regularly submit reports on their election expenses.

"I'm not saying political parties should not be controlled, but I'm not sure the law is the right tool to carry out the effective control of their election campaign expenses."

Politicians echoed that opinion.

"Honestly, it is not a problem to supply expense receipts so that everything is in line with the law in party books," said Zuzana Martináková, vice-chair of the Slovak Democratic and Christian Union (SDKÚ).

The law on limiting expenses in election campaigns has several problematic areas, says Valko.

According to the lawyer, one of the biggest problems is the opening sentence, which states that the law's purpose "is to set an acceptable limit to some of the expenses of political parties in election campaigns".

According to Valko, both the words "acceptable" and "some" make the legislation indefensible. "The word 'some' can cover up just about anything."

"It's extremely hard to define clearly and in detail all the items that should be included in election expenses. For example, do you include the glue with which you fix your billboards and posters in your election expenses?

"Do you include expenses related to the production and distribution of the ad materials? Again, the law intended these things to be included, but that is not expressly stated," said Valko.

Martináková suggested that future legislators should concentrate on improving the law that regulates the income of political parties, and once that is transparent, parties should be free to spend their money however they think best.

Martináková is not the only person who thinks that the limit is "useless and doesn't really have an effect on political parties' behavior".

Pavol Rusko, head of the New Citizen's Alliance (Ano) party and owner of Slovakia's most popular private TV station, TV Markiza, the weekly magazine Markiza, the daily newspaper Národná Obroda, and Radio Okey, also agrees that the limit should be dropped.

"The financing of campaigns would certainly become more transparent [if the expense limit were dropped]. The amount spent during election campaigns should depend only on the free market and on the skills of parties to transparently secure their own finances," Rusko said.

His party recently got into trouble with the APFP for reporting campaign spending for the period from June 13 to August 31 that was sharply different from the APFP's estimated market price for ads Ano took out in the print media.

Rusko claimed that his party supplied the correct data, and said that the nearly Sk2 million difference in the APFP market price estimate for the ads was merely a "result of the cleverness of my party when it organized the advertising".

He denied that the favorable rates Ano was given for its ads in Markiza magazine and Národná Obroda had anything to do with his influence with the publications.

"The limit is useless and has little effect on the behaviour of parties. We should concentrate more on the control of parties' income rather than their expenses," said Martináková.

Magdaléna Feniková, tax advisor to the Open Society Foundation in Bratislava, agreed that it would be "better if the limit did not exist. If suspicions arise, inconsistencies could be investigated by the financial police and tax authorities."

In the opinion of Eva Babitzová, business director of Radio Express, "advertising is part of freedom of speech and expression.

"If a political party is a legitimate subject, nobody should ban or limit its communication. The legislation should, however, make parties clarify where they get their money from."

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