Who funds political parties? What we have learned from an effort to create meaningful transparency

Mathias Huter

Beschäftigt sich mit Transparenz, Open Data und Anti-Korruption, interessiert sich besonders für Parteienfinanzierung und Beschaffungen. Von 2009 bis 2014 für Transparency International Georgia in Tiflis tätig.

As a voter, I would like to know who the largest donors or a party are before I make my choice on election day.  

To shed light on the funding of Austrian political parties, last July – three months ahead of parliamentary elections – Forum Informationsfreiheit launched Parteispenden.at, a platform that aggregates available information party financing and provides interactive visualizations and analysis.

We realized that simply providing the names of donors would not be sufficient for citizens to be able to understand which interests may be connected to political contributions. We thus provided relevant background information on donors – we listed companies an individual donor owns or manages, and listed the beneficial owners, brands, business activities and relevant subsidiaries of legal entities that supported a party.

Political parties in Austria, since 2013, have to release annual financial reports and disclose donors who give more than 3,500 Euro. These reports, however, is only published with up to two years delay and released as scanned PDF files, making it almost impossible for journalists and interested citizens to derive meaningful insights. The fact that the Austrian Court of Audit is not allowed to audit parties and their financial reports further increases the importance of meaningful transparency and public scrutiny.

During the run-up to the elections, questions about the possible influence of major donors on parties’ agenda were widely discussed. Parties are not required to release information on their campaign funding. As of yet, only one parliamentary party releases structured, itemized data on their revenues and expenditures in a timely manner. However, due to growing public demand, several parties voluntarily released information about contributions, which we incorporated into Parteispenden.at. For the first time, citizens had access to a platform that allowed them to get a sense of how transparent the finances of different parties were.  

Public funding is the largest source of income for most established Austrian parties. On the regional and local level, however, public funds paid to parties and their factions are not proactively disclosed. We have filed more than 90 requests for information through our request platform FragDenStaat.at to trace these financial flows. Due to the lack of a Freedom of Information Act and a prevailing culture of secrecy in parts of the administration – the Austrian government so far has not expressed interest in joining the OGP – in some cases it took more than a year and even required first steps of litigation to obtain information on awarded public funding.

However, we also found that several cities, including Salzburg, Linz and Bregenz, release open data on awarded grants and subsidies. Overall, were able to document more than 210 million Euro in direct public funding paid annually to parties, their parliamentary factions and think tanks (not including funding to affiliate organizations and at least 47 million Euro in opaque contracts awarded to party-owned companies).

There has been strong interest in our effort, more than 100 citizens donated some 5.000 Euro to help cover the costs of our research. Having spent several hundred hours opening up the party finance data, we publish the data we collect. Several media reports have referenced our data and used it to build infographics. We also used the insights about regulatory gaps and loopholes to co-draft a comprehensive civil society review of the party finance framework and its implementation.

What we have learned:

  • It is essential that the legal framework mandates the timely, detailed and comprehensive disclosure of political contributions, campaign funding and parties’ annual finances in a standardized and easily accessible format, and provides for independent oversight and adequate sanctions in case of non-compliance.
  • The framework for political finance disclosure should be reviewed regularly to identify how state-of-the-art technologies can be applied to help strengthen democratic accountability. The lack of OGP membership means that there may be no apparent mechanism to frame such a dialogue between civil society and government.
  • Infomediaries, i.e. as civil society initiatives and the media, can play an important role to turn available data on party financing, even if incomplete, into meaningful transparency by providing easy access, analysis and relevant context as well as by highlighting gaps to larger audiences.
  • Free and easy access to public registries, including the company registry, a beneficial ownership registry and registries of associations and trusts are essential for the media and civil society to provide the public with context on major political financiers. Our research was only possible because a commercial data provider granted us free access to its service.
  • Establishing meaningful transparency of the financing of political parties and electoral campaigns may be one important approach to help strengthen public trust in democratic processes and institutions, including by enabling citizens to make a bitter informed choice on election day.