Government may typically move slowly, but when it works in its favor, Germany’s coalition is quick to legislative action — especially if it hurts opponents on the far right.
Early this month, conservative Christian Democrats and the Christian Social Union set out with their center-left coalition partners, the Social Democrats, to revamp party financing laws. They sought in part to increase state aid for political parties. But they also took aim at the controversial financing tactics of the right-wing populist party, the Alternative for Germany, or AfD.
As the refugee crisis in Germany continues to divide politicians and the populace, many are concerned about the growing popularity of the right-wing party. Germany has accepted one million refugees this year fleeing war and poverty but Chancellor Angela Merkel’s insistence on an open-door policy of welcome has polarized opinion.
Over the course of the year, support for the right-wing group, with its fierce opposition to refugees and euro-zone bailouts, has grown to 9 percent.
This week the committee on internal affairs held a hearing on the proposed changes to the way parties are financed in Germany. By Thursday, the changes were scheduled to be ratified by the Bundestag, Germany’s lower legislative chamber, and take effect next month.
In Germany, political parties can get up to €2 million a year in state aid, or about $2.2 million. But first they must raise the same amount in revenues, usually in donations from supporters.
Political funding is an especially big issue in Germany, owing to its experience with the rise of National Socialism in the 1930s. Today it has broader political finance legislation than many other democracies.
“It would have been better for the [Christian Democratic] Union and SPD to have worked harder to counter the impression that they are more concerned with getting than with giving.”
Political parties in Germany receive up to twice per head what those in the United States, Great Britain and Canada do, for instance. But the overall campaign spending amounts still pale in comparision to those in the United States, where political action groups and large campaign donors funnel huge amounts of money to parties and individual candidates.
In Germany, the AfD tried last year to get around that revenue-matching stipulation. Instead of grassroots donations, it set up an online platform to raise money through gold sales. In 2014, it exceeded €2 million in revenues and received the same amount in state aid.
The proposed party financing changes would disallow “artificial revenues” like gold sales and possibly take state money away from the AfD in future years.
The changes also call for a big increase in state aid: Each party would get 83 cents for each vote it gets in an election, up from the current 70 cents. For the first 4 million votes a party receives, there would be even more – €1 instead of 85 cents. In addition, for every euro a party takes in from contributions by members, parliamentarians as well as from donations, taxpayers would add 45 cents instead of 38 cents.
The CDU-CSU and SPD coalition is pushing the big raise through on its own. The Left and Green parties favored ending the AfD’s gold trading, but opposed the increase in party financing.
The Green Party called for more transparency in sponsoring and for lowering the amount above which contributions must be made public. The Left party even advocated a general prohibition of donations from companies.
The Social Democrats, or SPD, said they understood the concerns but blamed their conservative coalition partners for an imperfect agreement. SPD whip Christine Lambrecht alleged the party’s transparency demands were blocked.
“We also see the need for more transparency,” Ms. Lambrecht told Handelsblatt, but added: “The draft legislation must be limited to areas where agreement was possible.
Helmut Brandt, a member of Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, or CDU, rejected the call for more transparency as “public posturing” and said the opposition had also come out in favor of raising public funding.
He called the raise a “moderate” increase, especially since the last hike was 13 years ago. In the meantime, he said, the parties’ expenses have risen – for organizing events, maintaining offices and paying employees.
Michael Koß of the Ludwig-Maxmilians-University in Munich disagreed. He said it was important in a democracy for parties receiving state funding to improve transparency of their financing.
“It would have been better for the [Christian Democratic] Union and SPD to have worked harder to counter the impression that they are more concerned with getting than with giving,” he said.
Hans Michael Heinig, an expert on party law from Göttingen, was less critical.
“Only the instrument for distributing the legally-determined and constitutionally limited funds is tied to prices,” he said. “This guarantees that the distribution among parties is not distorted by price increases.”
Whoever criticizes that as the parties lining their own pockets “is engaging in unabashed populism,” Mr. Heinig said.
Dietmar Neuerer writes about politics from Berlin. To contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org