Czech parties subject to stepped up election spending scrutiny

New rules apply to the Czech elections to the lower house of parliament for the first time limiting parties budgets’ and making them declare funding and spending flows. But while it’s a step in the right direction, some flaws are still seen in the overall framework.

David Ondráčka, photo: Karolína KoubováDavid Ondráčka, photo: Karolína Koubová According to one quote, politics is the art of getting votes from the poor and campaign funds from the rich. And Czech political campaigns have in the past witnessed stacks of cash washing around with the origins and strings attached for the most part unknown.

This year there does appear to be a difference. The usual billboards and ads offering everything from cars to cat food have not been invaded en masse by mostly middle aged men making bite size promises, the most visible sign of an election in progress. More political ads though appear to have migrated to social media.

Czech parliamentary elections taking place on October 20 and 21 are governed for the first time by new rules setting out spending ceilings for parties and individual candidates. They are also forced to disclose some details of their funding and spending. And, anyone funding a party or candidate, a so- called third person, should come clean by registering themselves and also limited their spending. A new body to oversee the parties and their spending has been up and running since the start of the year.

The new rules have opened up the way for bodies such an anti-corruption watchdog, Transparency International, to try and get to grips with the cash flow and spending for Czech elections this time round. It’s also helped it rank how open the various political parties actually are about their financing and spending.

Director of the Czech branch, David Ondráčka, is upbeat about the impact of the new rules on the political environment:

"I see positive progress recently. The level of disclosure of political parties has improved. We see that parties are voluntarily disclosing information about campaigns beyond their legal duties. And the aim of such monitoring is actually to force them into being competitive about who is being more open and who is trying to avoid any potential criticisms for non-transparency.

"However, we see a lot of corporate interests in the elections and there are parties that are connected to large companies and financial interests and it’s not easy to understand whether part of the campaign is not financed through other channels, through third parties or other actors."

Illustrative photo: Filip JandourekIllustrative photo: Filip Jandourek Ondráčka says the new rules appear to have forced political parties to think twice about their funding and spending:

"The campaign limit is in my view adequate. It has a potential to actually force parties into thinking and into not overspending too much. What we had before was that there were no limits and you could have hundreds of millions and the political marketing became limitless and it spiralled into the sky. "

In fact, the Czech branch with the help of a series of companies deal with mapping and monitoring social media, have tried to breakdown party political spending. A press conference on October 12 gave a picture of the volume of spending with less than two weeks left before polling and a late splurge in spending on the campaign expected. David Ondráčka again:

"We monitored so-called transparent accounts on a weekly basis and so far the spending was between 10 million and 50 million crowns per political party. So if you think that the cap on spending is 90 million, they are around half way. But it’s very clear that now they are speeding up and plan to increase their last minute spending. You can see it in the online world and you can see it on Facebook, Google ads, and other digital platforms to target their potential voters."

It’s clear that political parties have turned this time round to social media in a big way for their campaigns but they show signs of not being too sure whether it’s a tool for reaching out to a new audience or making sure the converted don’t stray.

"We have used the analytics of the SocialBakers company focused on social media monitoring. There were two findings: parties are spending up to a third of their costs on social and digital media these day. It’s evident that this is going up. Secondly, around half of the posts on Facebook are actually promoted with money, meaning that they try to have a bigger reach and find a bigger audience. But political parties also have different strategies. Some of them focus on their core voters and they try to target them with their messages. Some others are trying to attack or reach other voters and other voter groups. Who knows how efficient this strategy is, but in terms of money the fact is that no one is actually underestimating social media these days, not even the communists."

Illustrative photo: Kristýna MakováIllustrative photo: Kristýna Maková Petr Vymětal is an expert in party political financing at the faculty of international relations at Prague’s University of Economics. He says the analysis of social media spending has its limitations:

"It’s really difficult because there’s a lack of analytics and tools that can be used. Mostly, we saw the expenditures on transparent banking accounts on one hand and then we used the external companies that are dealing with social media behaviour of the actors. But still, the analytical tools that can provide some picture about posting and boosting the posts is really limited and it was really hard."

Vymětal adds that parties appear to be paying for the social media general campaigns and for individual candidates from the same credit card making following the cash flow even more difficult:

"Some parties use a credit card for paying the transactions and uploading the posts on Facebook. Basically, there are two transactions; one, a smaller one, and the second one, much bigger. We assume that one transaction is for the political party itself and the second one is from the candidates that are nominated by the political parties. The thing is that spending money on Facebook is rather limited so you cannot invest unlimited money for the campaign. That’s the basic regulation on Facebook that for money invested in the campaign you are limited in the area of the users that you want to have an impact on and the space is also limited on Facebook. You cannot occupy the whole of Facebook with your posts, it’s not possible. So from the transparent accounts, we can see that parties are mostly spending through their party political profile as well as through their candidates. "

The other side of the financing coin is, of course, the incoming cash as well and the picture here is also blurred. Transparency’s David Ondráčka:

"We looked of course at the donations side as well. There are no real surprises or special findings that we made. The rules are limiting the donors to 3 million crowns per individual or company, which is a major change from the previous times. However, if you are trying to play some tricks and to cover the source of the donations, it’s still possible and we will need to rely on the regulatory body to investigate such fraud."

The overall results of Transparency’s number crunching can be found on the site Transparentnivolby.cz. Clearly such conclusions would have been impossible in the past but the watchdog says that however creditable the advance in openness has been, there are still flaws in the regulatory framework:

Illustrative photo: compose / freeimagesIllustrative photo: compose / freeimages "Today’s measures do not allow us to calculate in detail the limit and actual spending of the political spending so we still some adjustment, perhaps this new oversight body will actually need more powers to actually calculate But I believe the limit has a positive role on the overall campaign performance. There are a few relevant loopholes that I see. One of them is the third persons, who are often making the campaign, and often a negative campaign and which is very visible in public discourse. But they don’t register themselves and it is not uncovered who is paying for those campaigns and so it’s apparent that the current regulation of third persons is not working. The second thing is the issue transparent accounts.

"Okay, it’s a very positive thing, you can actually follow the money. But at the same time, political parties have more accounts and some of them are not transparent and you don’t see them in real life and in real time. So, they will have to make a report two months after the elections with the final accounting. At the moment, we see only part of the story, unfortunately. And the third thing is the capital spending, as I said, 90 million crowns is relevant but we will probably not be able to calculate what the costs of the campaign were. "