A LIMIT on political parties' spending in election campaigns should be abolished, according to a proposal put forward by the Finance Ministry on June 27. Critics worry that the move may represent a serious blow to smaller parties' chances of making it into parliament.
Current legislation, which the ministry wants to see abolished, allows parties to spend no more than Sk12 million (€288,000) for their campaign. The restriction covers the period between the official announcement of the elections and polling day, representing a five-month campaign period at the most.
"There will be no more equality of opportunity, which should be preserved in political competition," said Milan Ftáčnik, head of the non-parliamentary Social Democratic Alternative (SDA) and former education minister.
"All parties should have the same opportunity to attract voters, regardless of their size," he added.
Others joined Ftáčnik's pleas for the government to preserve the limit on campaign spending.
"Small parties with no money will be disadvantaged," said Ladislav Jača, secretary general of the parliamentary Communist Party of Slovakia (KSS).
Finance ministry officials in charge of supervising campaign spending say the main reason why the law needs to go is that it is impossible to enforce.
"There is no way of proving that more than Sk12 million (€288,000) has been spent by a party," said ministry spokesperson Peter Papánek.
When listing reasons why the law cannot be effectively applied, the ministry says that it applies only to a limited range of expenses, includes vague terms, and fails to clearly define the ministry's powers. The law does not specify the content of the report on campaign spending the parties are obliged to submit to the ministry following the elections, the ministry claims.
As a result, the ministry can't assess how much money the parties really spent.
In fact, actual campaign spending in the past has far exceeded the statutory limit, according to insiders.
When asked by The Slovak Spectator about the average costs of an election campaign in Slovakia, political marketing expert Michal Ruttkay, head of Creo/Young and Rubicam in Slovakia, replied: "That is the same question as asking how much a car costs.
"There are 'Trabbies' [cheap cars built in former East German y] and there are Jaguars. It depends on what sort of a party it is, what support it has, whether it is new or already established," said Ruttkay.
"But according to our monitoring the amounts range somewhere between Sk40 and 200 million (€961,000 to €4.8 million)," he said.
Ruttkay could not say exactly how many parties could afford expensive, top-level campaigns.
"It is very difficult to say. The financing of parties is supposed to be transparent, because all parties submit financial statements to the parliament, but there are obviously other sources [of finances], so it's hard to say exactly. Basically all parties of the ruling coalition and all parties in parliament, perhaps with the exception of the KSS, would be able to put together the higher amounts," he said.
Critics of the proposal from the ranks of some of the smaller parties, which are unable to find enough sponsors to pay for more expensive campaigns, say the ministry should not abandon its efforts to keep track of the spending.
"Instead, the ministry should be looking for ways in which the law can be enforced," said Ftáčnik.
Analysts agree that the measure, if applied correctly, serves a good purpose.
"I think it does make sense to have a reasonable limit in place to ensure equal conditions for parties," Grigorij Mesežnikov, head of the Institute for Public Affairs think-tank, told The Slovak Spectator.
"The way I see it the ministry has given up on attempts to thoroughly monitor the parties' [campaign] expenditures," Mesežnikov added.
Representatives of smaller parties say there are ways to make sure parties do not violate campaign rules.
The KSS feels that even the current amount parties are allowed to spend for promotion in the campaign is too lavish.
"We are in favour of lowering the limit of expenses for election campaigns. Not Sk12 million, but Sk5 million (€120,000) should be enough," said Jača.
He added that it should "definitely not be the bodies of the executive branch" that ensure that these provisions are not violated.
When asked who should in his opinion do so, Jača replied: "The parliamentary finance committee or the Supreme Audit Office. The Finance Ministry should only check the spending of the money the parties receive from the state budget."
In a country where a party needs five percent to make it into parliament and the Slovak Christian and Democratic Union (SDKÚ) - the strongest party of the ruling coalition - has the support of 12.7 percent of the people, according to a survey done by the Public Opinion Research Institute of the Statistical Office released on June 18, good campaigning can make a lot of difference.
"Even the best campaign can lead to a gain of four percentage points at the most. Of course new parties looking to get into parliament are a different case. But with standard, established Slovak parties, the difference can be four to six percentage points," said Ruttkay.
14. Jul 2003 at 0:00 | Lukáš Fila