Party Finance Scandals and Their Consequences in the 2002 Election: Paying for Mistakes?

Article excerpt

The issue of political finance crucially shaped German political dynamics in the first three years of the 1998-2002 legislative period. By the year 2000 political finance scandals were being labeled the "dominant theme in German politics." (1) Scarcely a year into the first red-green government, the national political mood was crucially transformed by the repercussions of a political finance scandal that unseated leading figures in the CDU. These scandals, and the ensuing upheaval within the (CDU, gave the faltering red-green coalition a chance to regroup after its weak start in office, so that at one point it seemed that the CDU's ongoing embarrassments all but guaranteed a victory for the red-green coalition in 2002.

Yet, by the time the 2002 Bundestag election approached, the story had faded from the headlines and become a blur of arcane accounting details. Although the SPD did its best to revive the issue in conjunction with a renewed revision of the Parties Law, in the end it could not capitalize on the CDU's malfeasance, hot least because in the spring of 2002. the SPD was faced with revelations about financial misdeeds within its own organization. Nor could any of the other parties claim the "clean hands" image and use the issue to their advantage, as one after another of the parties fell victim to zealous reporting that treated financial irregularities of all sizes as equivalent evidence of ethical failings. Yet even though none of the parties campaigned on the issue of political finance in 2002, the scandals that began with revelations about secret donations to the CDU nevertheless left their mark on German politics. They crucially shaped the political selection process in the run-up to the 2002 election, depriving both the CDU and the PDS of popular leaders whose active campaigning might have made a critical difference in the closely fought election. They also led to lasting legal reforms that seem destined to shape the next act in Germany's long-running drama of political finance scandal and reform.

Approaches to Political Finance Regulation

Three-quarters of a century ago the role of money in politics was described as "the Achilles heel of democracy," (2) a description that seems no less valid today even though democracies have accumulated vast experience with political finance regulation in the ensuing years. In part, this is because of the difficulty of devising appropriate regulations in this field. In Germany, as in other democracies, political finance legislation attempts to reconcile the economic inequalities that arise in a market economy with the ideals of political equality that undergird representative democracies.

If political equality were the only value at stake, it might be relatively easy to design rules to keep private money out of politics, however difficult it might be to enforce these rules. But another key principle that political finance regulations must take into account in a democracy is the idea that citizens should be allowed and even encouraged to participate actively in the political process. And under many constitutional interpretations, giving money to political causes of one's choice is an extension of the free speech rights that are an essential part of the democratic framework. Because of these conflicting considerations, countries have adopted very different approaches for regulating political finance with the aim of preserving systemic legitimacy. Within individual countries the precise rules tend to be revised frequently as legislators and courts reinterpret the balance between these desiderata. This certainly has been the pattern in Germany, where the political finance law has undergone frequent revisions.

One of the problems for policy makers who attempt to criminalize political "influence buying" is the difficulty of proving intent. It is easy enough to pass laws that say that legislators may not receive gifts in return for promises to vote in a certain way on specific legislation, and many countries have adopted such laws. …