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Political Parties as Public Utilities


Ingrid van Biezen
Party Politics 2004 10: 701
DOI: 10.1177/1354068804046914
The online version of this article can be found at:
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POLITICAL PARTIES AS PUBLIC UTILITIES


Ingrid van Biezen
ABSTRACT

The exceptional relevance of the state in party finance in contemporary


European democracies is not only of particular importance for the way
in which parties organize, but also has a bearing on the normative
connotations associated with the place of political parties in modern
democracy. The contention of this article is that the increasingly
prominent role of the state in the funding of parties should be understood in the context of, and has been legitimized by, an ideational transformation by which parties have gradually come to be seen as necessary
and desirable institutions for democracy. Moreover, the direct involvement of the state in internal party affairs has contributed to a transformation of parties from the traditionally voluntary private associations
towards parties as public utilities. A comparison of the practice of public
funding and public control on party finance in the older liberal democracies with more recent cases of democratization shows that the newer
European democracies in particular provide unequivocal testimony of
such a new conception of parties and democracy.

KEY WORDS  democratic theory  party finance  party organization  public


funding  state regulation

Historically, political parties in Western Europe primarily depended on


private contributions to finance their activities. While the classic mass party
secured a structural flow of income from the fees paid by its members and
the donations from affiliated trade unions, the cadre party generally relied
on contributions from wealthy individuals or donations from private
business. Government financing of the political process, if at all, occurred
mainly indirectly. Public funding for political parties is a relatively recent
phenomenon in European democracies (Alexander, 1989).
The impact of public funding should not be underestimated. It has not
only produced a dramatic change in the way parties in modern democracies are financed, but it has also clearly encouraged important changes in
the way in which they are organized. The growing dependence on the state
as a principal financer of party activity may result in a corresponding
1354-0688[DOI: 10.1177/1354068804046914]

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increase of power concentration within the party, for example (see Nassmacher, 1989; Panebianco, 1988). Moreover, the increasing availability of
state subventions has strengthened the orientation of parties towards the
state while at the same time contributing to their shifting away from society
(Katz and Mair, 1995). In addition to a reinforcement of the linkages
between parties and the state, public funding has also served to encourage
a particular conception of democracy and political parties, by which parties
are increasingly seen as an essential public good for democracy and less
exclusively as the private voluntary associations which are the instruments
of civil society (see Katz, 1996).
It is especially in the more recently established democracies in Europe that
public funding has acquired an exceptional relevance and is of particularly
crucial importance for the way in which parties in these new democracies
organize (see van Biezen, 2003). In this article it will be shown that the state
plays an even more critical role in the financing of parties in new democratic polities than in the established democracies in Western Europe. In
addition, and perhaps more importantly, the significance of the state as a
financial contributor to party activity transcends its immediate empirical
importance and also has a bearing on the normative connotations associated with political parties and democracy. The contention of this article is
that the increasingly prominent role of the state in party financing should
be interpreted in the context of an ideational transformation concerning the
place of political parties in modern democracy. More specifically, it is as a
result of changing conceptions of parties and democracy that political
parties have come to be perceived increasingly as necessary and desirable
institutions for modern democracy. This has paved the way for the legitimation of direct state involvement in their internal affairs and their external
activities.
Moreover, public funding and the extensive nature of public control on
party finance have contributed to a transformation of parties from the
traditionally voluntary private associations which perform public roles and
occupy government positions, towards parties as public utilities. Recent
cases of democratization, where parties were attributed a markedly privileged position in legal and constitutional terms, where the state plays a
decisive role in party financing and where state regulation exercises a degree
of control on party activity unprecedented in the context of a liberal democracy, provide the most unequivocal testimony of such a new conception. In
this article, the newer European democracies are taken as a point of departure for analysis. However, the explicit comparative reference point is with
the experiences in the older democracies, thereby underlining not only what
is typical for the nature of political parties in the broader realm of new
democracies but also what has been distinctive about their place in the
established liberal democracies in Western Europe.

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The Centrality of Parties and the Legitimation of


Public Finance
The debate on political finance is essentially built around two broader
strands. The first concentrates on the more illicit aspects of political finance
and on the causes and consequences for corruption (e.g. Della Porta and
Mny, 1997; Della Porta and Vannucci, 1999). Recent years have witnessed
a series of cases of political corruption and campaign finance abuses, which
revealed that such practices are not the exclusive preserve of ostensibly
corrupt countries such as Italy or Spain but are also to be found in seemingly
less disreputable states such as Germany or the United Kingdom. These
scandals have generated a renewed interest in the influence of private money
on the democratic process, the unlawful sources of money that flow into party
coffers and the illegitimate personal enrichment of public office-holders. At
the heart of the discussion here lies the sometimes thin line between the
private and public spheres and the unwelcome blurring between the two.
The second strand concentrates more explicitly on the legal and public
aspects of political finance. This thread has acquired momentum especially
with the introduction of direct public subsidies to political parties. The
discussions here include reflections on the broader issues related to the
funding of democratic politics. More specifically, it is concerned with the
question of the desirability of public money to support parties operating in
a context of rising costs; with the role of the state as a safeguard of the
fairness and equality of political competition; and with the wider implications of the patterns of political finance for the linkages between parties,
society and the state (e.g. Alexander, 1989; Gunlicks, 1993; Katz and Mair,
1995; Nassmacher, 2001a).
While these two threads in principle approach political finance from a
different angle, the two can also be seen as related, in the sense that public
support for parties and public control of party financing have increasingly
come to be seen as a legitimate means for curtailing illicit practices of
finance. This can be seen from the recent interest of national and international governmental institutions and non-governmental organizations for
the funding of political parties and illicit practices of party and campaign
financing. These include bodies such as the European Parliament, which
has investigated and reported on the funding of political parties in the EU
member states since 1991,1 the Council of Europe, which has been working
on the issue of party financing since the early 1990s,2 the International
Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA), which has
recently published a handbook on the financing of political parties and
election campaigns across the world,3 and Transparency International,
which seeks to provide a forum to address issues of party financing and
corruption.4 What emerges from the recommendations and guidelines of
these organizations is a strong plea for the state to facilitate fair and equal
competition between parties through public subsidies, and to guarantee the
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accountability of parties and the transparency of party financing through


legislation and public control.
This illustrates that the state has come to assume a legitimate role in party
financing in modern democracies. Indeed, the broader contention in this
article is that public finance has acquired progressively more legitimacy as
a necessary condition for the healthy functioning of political parties and,
almost as a corollary, for the operation of democratic politics more generally. This gradual legitimation of the role of public money in contemporary
democratic politics should be understood in the context of the increasing
recognition of political parties themselves as inevitable and desirable institutions. In fact, it is the growing acceptance of parties as the key intermediary institutions of contemporary democracy which has paved the way
for the legitimation of state support.
At this point, it is important to recall that the party as a political institution is a relatively recent phenomenon and that its presence at the time
of its initial emergence was not necessarily seen as inevitable, let alone desirable. Parties when they first appeared were primarily perceived as a threat
to the general interest or as overriding the interests of the individual, as their
existence was fundamentally incompatible with the radical democratic
tradition inspired by Rousseau and the liberal democratic tradition rooted
in the political philosophy of Locke. It was only with the advent of mass
democracy that the notion of parties as necessary intermediary links
between individual citizens and the state became more widely acknowledged, while only in the immediate post-war period did a more explicitly
positive connotation came to be attached to the role of parties in representative democracy. Attesting to an increasingly approving attitude towards
political parties, and to a conception of democracy in which parties are not
only key institutions but in fact a necessary and positive condition for a
modern democracy, was their constitutionalization beginning with the
restoration of democracy in Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany after
World War II. This practice has since been followed in constitutional revisions in many other polities, including the European Union. While political
parties have been long neglected in the constitutions of western liberal
democracies (and in some countries still lack a legal status), in the post-war
period their relevance for democracy became more widely acknowledged
also in constitutional terms, to the point that pluralism, political participation and competition in many contemporary democratic constitutions
have come to be defined almost exclusively in terms of party.
The appreciation of the positive contribution of parties to democracy
signalled a dramatic shift in the predominant discourse. While they have
perhaps never been without their critics (see Daalder, 1992), the general
understanding today echoes Schattschneiders (1942: 1) famous assertion
that modern democracy is unthinkable save in terms of political parties.
Hence, one of the most consequential changes in the connotations attached
to political parties should be identified in terms of a transformation of the
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normative assumptions underlying the relationship between parties and


democracy, reflecting a notion in which they have come to be seen as
inevitable, and valued as desirable political institutions in representative
democracy.
This positive connotation, which has come to be attached to political
parties as imperative for a healthy functioning of democracy, has also
opened up the possibilities for the funding of parties by the state, and for
the legal regulation of their organization and activity in the modern democratic polity. Because political parties gradually came to be seen as a sine
qua non of a modern democracy, the state would assume a legitimate role
in supporting the provision of parties as an essential public good by directly
furnishing them with financial support (see Katz, 1996). The centrality of
political parties in contemporary democracies and the fact that they are
being financed increasingly by public means should therefore be seen as
closely interrelated. While parties in the liberal conception of democracy are
essentially conceived of as voluntary private associations and internal party
activity as largely outside the public realm, the increasingly favourable
normative overtones associated with the party as a political institution have
encouraged and indeed legitimized the direct intervention of the state in
their traditionally predominantly private financial affairs. Political finance
has consequently to some degree ceased to be the exclusive preserve of the
parties themselves as private associations.
Hence, because of the increasing involvement of the state, political parties
have been progressively incorporated into the public domain. This process
has been encouraged by the introduction of public subsidies, on the one
hand, and by statutory control on party financing, on the other. Although
the US has a relatively long experience of campaign finance laws, in many
West European countries the legal codification of party financing has
received a stimulus only in recent years. This has put parties under increased
public scrutiny, in an attempt to enhance their public accountability by
obliging them to facilitate external access to, and inspection of, their
internal financial affairs. As a result of both the juridification of party
financing and the growing prominence of direct public funding, parties are
to be seen increasingly as public rather than private institutions. The equilibrium between the public control of party activity and their status and
associated privileges as private organizations has shifted to the detriment of
the latter, to the point that a conception has come to prevail of party as a
public utility, as Epstein (1986: 157) observed for the American context,
i.e. an agency performing a service in which the public has a special interest
sufficient to justify governmental regulatory control, along with the extension of legal privileges, but not governmental ownership or management of
all the agencys activities.
From this perspective, in which democracy requires elections contested by
political parties, parties come to be conceived of as an integral part of the
democratic apparatus and democracy essentially as a service to society
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provided by the state. These ideas are particularly closely related to the cartel
party model of organization as advanced by Katz and Mair (1995), in which
colluding parties become entrenched within the state and employ resources
of the state in order to guarantee their own survival. From a conception of
parties as public utilities, the fact that parties have developed into agents of
the state actually becomes a positive quality. Hence, the cartel party model
of organization may not only be attractive from the perspective of party elites
wishing to protect their own interests, but also corresponds to the prevailing
normative conceptions on the place and role of parties in a democracy.

The Rationale for Public Funding


Virtually all European countries currently provide state support to political
parties, the underlying motivations for which are at least threefold. The first
is what could be called strictly financial. This entails that the subsidies to
parties and candidates should be understood in the context of the rising cost
of the democratic process coupled with a decrease in revenues to its principal protagonists. Politics in the western liberal democracies has become
progressively more expensive as the result of the increased use of the mass
media and more cost-intensive campaigning techniques, and as a consequence of the internal professionalization of parties. Indeed, the overall
resources of parties have increased substantially (see Mair, 1994). Their
central headquarters and parliamentary groups are better staffed than they
were 20 to 30 years ago, their annual income has increased and they are
spending more money on election campaigns (Farrell, 2002: 76; see also
Farrell and Webb, 2000).
In addition to the increasing costs of politics per se, political parties have
suffered from a growing disengagement of citizens from conventional
politics, which can be seen, for example, from the weakening of party
identifications, increasing partisan dealignment and the substantial decline
in the number of party members (Dalton et al., 2000; Mair and van Biezen,
2001). As a consequence of the erosion of their membership organizations
in particular, parties have lost a substantial share of their reservoir of volunteers who would work for the party as unpaid employees or who would
carry out labour-intensive campaigning activities. For this loss, they have
compensated by recruiting larger numbers of paid professionals. At the
same time, the decline in affiliation has deprived parties of an important
source of revenue, as it has implied an effective reduction in the income
derived from membership subscriptions. The combination of rising costs
and decreasing revenues, has encouraged the search for compensation
through alternative sources of income. Because parties had come to be seen
as the key political institutions for modern democracy, it would seem logical
for the state to intervene with direct financial support in order to facilitate
or guarantee their continued existence.
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A second important justification for the state to be directly involved in the


financing of political parties can be associated with concerns for equal opportunities, fairness and the equality of political competition (Gunlicks, 1993:
5). On this view, not all parties are equally resourceful and those which
cannot successfully tap into the resources of private contributors should not
be disadvantaged. This consideration is primarily relevant for smaller parties,
for parties whose political programme is unlikely to appeal to wealthy or
established interests and for newly established parties which lack any
linkages with affiliated interest organizations. Even though the financial
importance of the trade union movement has diminished with time as a result
of the gradual weakening of the historically strong affiliation with socialdemocratic parties, the traditional mode of financing continues to be of some
significance. The British Labour Party, for example, reported that it had
raised just under half of its income from the trade unions in the final quarter
of 2002, underlining the partys reliance on the trade union movement even
in an era in which the links between the two have come under strain.5 State
subsidies are expected to facilitate a more equal level playing field by
enabling new, small and less resourceful parties to compete on a more equitable basis with the dominant and financially more privileged ones.
A third argument in favour of public funding relates to the desire to
restrict the influence of private money and to limit its potential for distortion
of the democratic political process. The concern here is that certain private
interests, rather than the general public interest, would come to guide the
conduct of parties and elected officials. Since public funding relieves parties
from having to satisfy their financial supporters it is anticipated that they
have a diminishing effect on corruption. Similar motivations often lie
beneath the legal limits on private donations and campaign expenditures
(Alexander and Shiratori, 1994). The introduction of public legislation on
party financing, moreover, gives the state a larger degree of control over the
role of money in politics and a greater opportunity legitimately to exercise
some degree of supervision over party financial activity, which should
further reduce the potentially excessive influence of private contributors at
the expense of the public interest.
Each of these principles can be understood in the light of the prevailing
notions on the relevance of parties for modern democracy. As Paltiel has
observed on the rationale for the introduction of public financing:
Whether the motive for change was financial stringency, the reduction
of the burden of rising election costs, or the desire to escape the taint of
corruption, or a mixture of these, efforts were made to justify these
reforms in terms of liberal democratic ideology.
(quoted in Alexander, 1989: 16)

In other words, it is only from a conception of democracy which views


parties as the principal protagonists and as an indispensable public good
that the state could have come to play a legitimate role in party financing.
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Public Funding in New Democracies


While the arguments on the centrality of parties and the rationale for public
funding are pertinent to contemporary democracies more generally, they
arguably have a special relevance for the more recently established democracies. It is in new democracies in particular that the very establishment of
democratic procedures was often signalled by and identified with the establishment of free competition between parties and that parties were attributed a pivotal role and indeed privileged position as the key instruments for
the expression of political pluralism and political participation. The observation by Kopecky (1995: 516), that the conception of democracy prevailing among the designers of the new democratic regime in the Czech
Republic was one in which political parties were seen as the core foundation
of the democratic political system, has a wider significance in the broader
realm of recently established democracies in Europe. The large majority of
the new democracies established as part of the third wave (Huntington,
1991) have reserved a special place in their constitutions to underline the
critical role of political parties in the new political system, thereby following the examples of Italy and the Federal Republic of Germany in the
immediate post-war era and subsequent examples of the constitutionalization of parties throughout Western Europe.
In addition, even more so than in the established European democracies,
public funding plays a pivotal role in the financing of parties in the newer
democracies. In the mid-1970s, the Southern European countries were the
first of the third wave democracies to introduce public funding of parties
on a relatively large scale, an example which has since been followed by
many of the post-communist democracies established in the early 1990s. In
a comparative study of the practice of political finance in 17 Eastern
European countries, Ikstens et al. (2002) find that all post-communist
polities offer free radio and/or television broadcasting, and that they provide
direct public subsidies to political parties and candidates in more than threequarters of the cases.
One important reason for the rapid introduction of public subsidies
specifically relevant for parties in new democracies relates to the very
newness of the parties themselves. Because the pre-democratic regimes
impeded the existence and voluntary creation of competing political
organizations, only a few parties would survive the decades of nondemocratic rule and would emerge at the outset of the transition with some
degree of organizational continuity. In Portugal, for example, only the
Communist Party (PCP) could count on a long-standing organizational
history. In Spain, while both the Communist Party (PCE) and the Socialist
Party (PSOE) have historical roots dating back to the pre-authoritarian
period, much of their organizational structure was eradicated by the repression of the authoritarian regime. In post-communist democracies, the ruling
Communist Party was often the only party with a continuous organizational
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history. Hence, in newly emerging democratic polities, political society would


usually assume most of its organizational form only during or after the
transition to democracy. Because most parties in new democracies started out
with relatively weakly developed organizational structures and could not
draw on any institutionalized links with organized and individual interests
for financial assistance, there were few alternative financial resources available except for the subsidies of the state. Direct and indirect public funding
thus served partially to compensate for the lack of financial resources for
parties that found themselves in only incipient stages of party formation.
In addition to these strictly financial reasons encouraged by a general
lack of resources, a second important motive for the introduction of public
subsidies was driven by a concern with equality of political competition and
participation. This is especially valid for the post-communist context, where
state subsidies were in part intended to compensate newly created parties
for the disadvantages in competition with the materially and financially
secure successors of the Communist Party (van Biezen and Kopecky, 2001).
Whether they remained organizationally and ideologically virtually identical to the former ruling party or aimed at a radical break with the past,
descendants of the Communist Party often inherited much of the organizational, material and financial assets of the former ruling party. Public
funding was to compensate the newly created parties for the competitive
advantages of organizational continuity of many of the communist successor parties.
Public funding may indeed enable new and smaller parties to participate
on a more equal footing with the more resourceful ones. This is especially
true for systems of state financing which combine the principle of equality,
by which each party receives an equal sum of money, with the principle of
proportionality, by which public subsidies are allocated in relation to the
number of votes and/or seats. In Hungary, for example, 25 percent of the
state money for routine activities is distributed equally among all parties
that have obtained a seat in parliament, while the remaining 75 percent is
distributed on the basis of the votes obtained in the first round of the parliamentary elections. In the same vein, part of the state subventions for election
campaigns in Portugal (20 percent) is distributed equally over the participating parties and candidates while the remainder is divided in proportion
to the obtained electoral result. Both these systems prove in fact slightly
more advantageous to smaller parties.
Generally speaking, a system which provides lump sums is more favourable
to smaller parties, which would receive comparatively larger amounts of
money under such a system than in one which is exclusively focused on the
levels of electoral support or parliamentary strength. Conversely, systems
which allocate money almost exclusively on a proportional basis tend to
favour the larger parties. In Spain, for example, the method of allocation of
state subventions, in particular for the reimbursement of election expenses,
significantly intensifies the already disproportional tendencies inherent in the
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electoral system. As a result, the two bigger parties (PSOE and PP) collected
between 82 and 89 percent of the total of electoral subsidies between 1986
and 1996, while oscillating between 65 and 76 percent of the vote (see van
Biezen, 2000). Party finance regimes as in Spain thus penalize smaller parties
and may in fact make it more difficult for newcomers to enter the system
or for smaller parties to challenge the status quo, and may even contribute
to a cartelization of the party system (Gillespie, 1998: 8184).
Given that state subventions were introduced when most parties were still
in an initial stage of party formation and therefore usually lacked alternative organizational resources, public funding was always likely to play a
critical role in the financing of these parties. Indeed, the state appears to be
the predominant player in party financing in many of the post-communist
countries in Europe as well as in their Southern European counterparts. For
many parties the financial dependence on public subventions is such that
the state is often (at least formally) the single most important financial
contributor to party activity, while some parties are virtually entirely dependent on public money. To the major Portuguese and Spanish parties, for
example, the state contributes on average some 75 to 85 percent of their
total income (van Biezen, 2000). In most of the post-communist democracies in Eastern Europe the role of the state in party financing tends to be of
equal significance (Lewis, 1998; Szczerbiak, 2001; van Biezen, 2003).
Table 1 gives an impression of the relative importance of the state for the
financing of parties and election campaigns in some of the newer democracies in Southern and East-Central Europe. The figures here present the
averages for a variety of parties over a number of years, and distinguish
between three broader categories of monetary income: the state (including
subsidies for election campaigns and routine organizational activities),
private or voluntary fundraising (including membership fees, individual and
corporate donations) and other sources (which may include bank loans, the
revenues from real estate or unspecified income). The evidence here is
presented in a rather crude and aggregated form.6 Nonetheless, it clearly
demonstrates the unequivocal importance of state support, which amounts
to some 28 percent in the case of Portugal, about half of the annual party
Table 1. Financing parties and elections

Czech Republic (199596)


Hungary (199096)
Portugal (19952002)a
Spain (198897)b

Public
subsidies

Private
fundraising

Other

47.6
55.8
28.1
76.4

26.2
7.0
38.2
14.6

26.0
37.2
33.7
9.0

election campaigns only.


excluding election campaigns.
Source: van Biezen, 2003.

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income in post-communist Hungary and the Czech Republic and to over


three-quarters in the case of Spain. Moreover, with the exception of
Portugal, the state has assumed the role of single most important financer
of party activity.7 Although it should be observed that the relevance of
private and voluntary fundraising has not entirely been relegated to the
margins, these contributions are clearly of less significance for party financing than public subsidies.
A corollary of the role of the state as a key financial contributor to party
activity is the irrelevance of other sources of income and especially of
membership fees. Given the generally low levels of party membership in new
democracies, it should be hardly surprising that membership subscriptions
constitute only a minor, if not negligible, financial resource. To be sure, for
a few parties the membership continues to be of importance also in financial terms. Examples here primarily include parties with a long-standing
organizational legacy and with relatively large membership organizations,
such as the former clandestine communist parties in post-authoritarian
Southern Europe or the former ruling communist parties in Eastern Europe.
The general tendency, however, is one which indicates the relative unimportance of the membership organization for party financing, with the
financial contribution of membership subscriptions reaching levels approximating zero in extreme cases.
Parties in new democracies are thus financially firmly entrenched in the
state, and even more so than their counterparts in the established democracies: by the late 1980s, and despite considerable cross-country variation,
public funds on average contributed to only some 35 percent of the parties
total income in the older Western European democracies (see Krouwel,
1999). In terms of its overall contribution to party activity, therefore, the
state plays a more prominent role in the newer democracies. Moreover, in
the older liberal democracies state funding of parties was introduced usually
only long after the institutionalization of the party system and the consolidation of the democratic regime. By contrast, recent transitions to democracy were generally accompanied by, and political parties emerged within,
a context of extensive state funding. In the newer democracies, the early
introduction of state subventions thus secured a strong financial dependence
on the state from the outset and the tie between parties and the state came
immediately in the wake of democratization.
The financial link with society is generally much more weakly developed.
Given that many of the parties in the newer democracies will have had to
build their organizations from scratch, and given that the institutional
context of party formation will have led to the prioritizing of electoralist as
opposed to organizationally penetrative strategies, the incentives to secure
a strong linkage with society were already limited to begin with (van Biezen,
2003). The early financial dependence on the state appears to have removed
one of the key incentives to establish a more structural relationship with
society. Notwithstanding the continuing importance of the membership
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organization for some of the formerly clandestine or communist successor


parties, the membership has generally lost virtually all relevance in financial terms. On average, the proportion of income derived from the party
membership in the four countries considered here amounts to only between
5 and 10 percent. This stands out in sharp contrast with the West European
parties, where by the late 1980s, and despite a distinctive decline from the
beginning of the 1950s onwards, still almost 30 percent of the annual
income originated from membership fees (see Krouwel, 1999).
In terms of the strong interdependence between parties and the state,
therefore, these newer democracies in Southern and East-Central Europe
clearly reflect the trend observed by Katz and Mair (1995) in Western
Europe, by which state subventions become a principal resource for modern
parties. Even though the introduction of state support for parties may not
have implied that other financial resources have become irrelevant (see
Pierre et al., 2000), with state support ranging from just over one-fifth
(Denmark) to almost eighty-five percent (Finland) of total party income, the
evidence shows a dependence on state subvention that is . . . non-trivial
(Katz, 2002: 114). The introduction of public subsidies for parties should
thus be seen as a critical turning point in party development and, as Katz
(2002: 115) argues, public funding may in fact represent a fundamental
change in the character of the party, furthering its transformation from a
private association into a semi-public entity. It is in this sense that state
subventions should be seen as having made a decisive difference, in that they
have contributed to a process by which parties increasingly become part of
the state rather than being the agents of civil society. Even more so than in
the liberal democracies of Western Europe, parties in the more recently
established democracies provide unequivocal evidence of the changing
nature of parties in democratic politics.

Public Control of Party Finances


What further attests to a changing conception of the party away from the
voluntary private association to the party as a special type of public utility
is the increasing control over party activity through public law. The
traditional conception of the party implied that the state in principle would
not interfere in its internal affairs and external activities. This also meant
that party activity, including party finance, was often not regulated through
public law and that the legal codification of parties would develop only long
after parties first emerged as political actors. As party finance legislation has
generally developed in conjunction with the juridification of parties and the
introduction of direct state funding, at present virtually all the longestablished democracies have adopted public laws in order to monitor and
control the income and expenditures of political parties and candidates (see
Table 2). Even traditionally relatively liberal financing regimes such as
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Britain have recently attributed a greater role to the state in the control of
party financing by adopting new legislation on the issue (see Koole, 2001).
Countries such as Switzerland are now among the few where, at least in
financial terms, the separation between state and parties continues to
persist: on the federal level no public subsidies are available for party
organizations or election campaigns and there are no public regulations on
their financial activities (Nassmacher, 2001b: 103, 105).
In many respects, the legal codification of political finance in the newer
democracies provides a marked example of the modern conception of party
as public utility. In sharp contrast with the late 19th- and early 20th-century
democratization processes, recent transitions to democracy took place in a
context in which parties had already come to be perceived as key institutions
performing a special service to democracy. From the birth of the new democratic polity they were therefore attributed a privileged status and they were
often furnished with direct state support from the very beginning. In
addition, public control on party finance would also be enacted virtually
from the outset (Lewis, 1998). Moreover, party finance legislation in the
newer democracies was not only enacted more swiftly than in the older
democracies, the financing regimes also tend to entail a much larger degree
of public control. The notion that parties are a distinctive type of public
utility has encouraged a practice of party financing which is subject to strict
legal regulations, such as on the amount and type of permissible contributions or on the amounts of party or campaign expenditures. Indeed, and
as will be discussed at greater length below, the relatively restrictive legal
frameworks on the organization, activities and financing of political parties
in the newer democracies stand out in sharp contrast with the relatively
liberal finance regimes in their older counterparts, underlining that it is the
new democracies in particular which provide the most marked indication
of a conception of the party as a public utility.
Table 2 shows that in virtually all areas of party finance the newer democracies have adopted stricter regulations than the long-established ones.8
More so than in the older democracies, for example, parties in the new
democracies are obliged to report their annual accounts and to disclose the
amount and source of contributions and/or the details of expenditures. New
democracies also tend to be less permissive with regard to private and
corporate donations, as well as party and campaign expenditures. While
corporate donations are permitted virtually everywhere (the only exceptions
are Belgium and France), in a few countries, all of which are new democracies, the amount per donor or the total amount of corporate contributions
is limited by law. A similar pattern emerges from the regulations on the
amount of private (individual) donations. Only a small minority of countries have capped the amount of private donations or have put a ceiling on
the total amount of donations parties and candidates may receive per year
or per election cycle. With the exceptions of Belgium and France, it is only
in new democracies that these donations are subject to legal regulations. In
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Table 2. Public control of party finance

Country

Finance
law

Disclosure
and/or
reporting

Limits on
private
donations

Limits/bans
on corporate
donations

Limits/bans
on foreign
donations

Albania
Austria
Belgium

Yes
Yes
Yes

No
Yes
Yes

No
No
Yes

No
No
Yes (ban)

Yes (limit)
No
No

Croatia
Czech
Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
France

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes

No
No

No
n/a

No
Yes (ban)

Yes
Yes
No
Yes

n/a
Yes
n/a
Yes

No
No
No
Yes

No
No
No
Yes (ban)

n/a
Yes (limit)
No
Yes (limit)

Georgia

Yes

Yes

Yes

Yes (limit)

Yes (limit)

Germany
Greece

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes

No
Yes

No
Yes (limit)

Yes (limit)
No

Hungary

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes (limit)

Ireland

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

Italy

Yes

Yes

No

No

No

Latvia
Lithuania

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes

Yes
No

Yes (limit)
Yes (limit)

Yes (ban)
Yes (limit)

Luxembourg
Macedonia
Moldova
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal

Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
No
Yes
Yes

No
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes
Yes

No
Yes
No
No
No
No
Yes

No
Yes (limit)
No
No
No
No
Yes (limit)

No
Yes
Yes
No
No
Yes
Yes

Romania
Russia

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes

Yes (limit)
No

Yes (limit)
Yes (ban)

Slovakia

Yes

Yes

No

No

Yes (ban)

Slovenia
Spain

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes

Yes
Yes

Yes (limit)
Yes (limit)

Yes (ban)
Yes (limit)

Sweden
Switzerland
Ukraine
United
Kingdom

No
No
n/a
Yes

Yes
No
Yes
Yes

No
No
Yes
No

No
No
n/a
No

No
No
Yes (ban)
Yes (ban)

(ban)
(ban)

(ban)
(limit)

Limits on
expenditures
No
No
Yes (party &
campaign)
No
No
n/a
No
n/a
Yes
(campaign)
Yes (party &
campaign)
No
Yes
(campaign)
Yes
(campaign)
Yes
(campaign)
Yes
(campaign)
No
Yes
(campaign)
n/a
Yes*
No
No
n/a
No
Yes (party &
campaign)
No
Yes (party &
campaign)
Yes
(campaign)
n/a
Yes
(campaign)
No
No
Yes*
Yes
(campaign)

*Breakdown of limitations not available.


Sources: Council of Europe (see note 8); Ikstens et al., 2002; LeDuc et al., 1996; Nassmacher, 2001a.

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fact, almost half of the newly established democracies have introduced legal
limits on private and corporate donations, while the large majority of the
long-established democracies have left the issue on the whole unregulated.
Table 2 furthermore shows that, in terms of the amounts that may be spent
on party activity or election campaigns, the newer democracies have also
adopted a more restrictive regime than the older ones:9 virtually all of the
new democracies (with the exception of Poland and Romania) have
restricted party and/or campaign expenses by public legislation against only
half of the older democracies.
Many countries have also adopted legal provisions which restrict foreign
donations. At one extreme, some countries have imposed a complete ban
on donations from foreign individuals and organizations. With the exception of the United Kingdom, which banned foreign donations in 2000, all
of these are newer democracies. At the other extreme, the countries which
do not prohibit foreign donations in any form are virtually all older democracies (Greece being the only exception). In between are the (mostly new)
democracies which do allow certain types of foreign donations while
prohibiting others. Estonia, for example, excludes donations from foreign
public institutions, Hungary prohibits donations from foreign states but
permits donations from foreign individuals or organizations, while Portugal
allows donations from foreign individuals but not from foreign organizations. Perhaps paradoxically, also in this regard the new democracies are
more restrictive than their older counterparts, while it is at the same time
an almost conventional wisdom that many of these parties received financial support from abroad, especially in the early years of the transition.
Communist parties in post-authoritarian Southern Europe were known to
be financed by the Soviet Union, for example, while other parties received
financial (and technological) support from West European and particularly
West German parties and their associated research institutes (e.g. del
Castillo, 1989). Foreign financial aid to parties in Southern Europe significantly diminished after the demise of the communist regimes in Eastern
Europe and particularly the unification of Germany, after which German
financial aid was mostly directed to the East. In addition to the financial
support from Western Europe, many democratizing countries in Eastern
Europe have relied heavily on the financial assistance of the US (see Glenn,
1999).
While this brief account does not aim to provide a systematic analysis of
the substance of finance legislation in Europe, it nevertheless serves to illustrate a fundamental difference between old and new democracies. The
overall picture that emerges here is of party finance legislation being much
more rigorous, less permissive and less liberal in the newer democracies than
in the long-established ones. This can be seen as indicative of a particular
notion of the party. It suggests a conception in which, as Katz puts it, party
structures have become legitimate objects of state regulation to a degree far
exceeding what would normally be acceptable for private associations in a
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liberal society. Intensive state regulation may curtail the organizational


autonomy of parties to such an extent that parties become annexed to the
institutions of the state. Ultimately, this may lead European parties to
converge to the American view in which parties are conceived of as part of
the machinery of elections, rather than organizations that themselves
contest elections (Katz, 2002: 90; emphasis in original). The increasing
regulation of party activity through public law suggests that it may soon be
no longer only in America (Epstein, 1986: 156) that parties should have
so special a legal status.
The increasing public control of party activity underlines the notion of
parties as public utilities regardless of the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of
enforcement mechanisms. Indeed, while state regulation of party finance has
often been enacted with a view to curtail corrupt practices and to enhance
public accountability, illicit party financing in the newer democracies
continues to persist, perhaps paradoxically, in spite of the relatively stringent legal frameworks. For many of the newer democracies there is ample
evidence that considerable amounts of money have been obtained from
corrupt sources. In Spain, where it was first uncovered through the Filesa
affair and seemed to involve the Socialist Party in particular, this type of
financing is generally thought to have assumed extensive proportions (e.g.
del Castillo, 1994; Heywood, 1996). Furthermore, in the other new democracies in Southern Europe corrupt practices have begun to draw attention
as well (e.g. de Sousa, 2001) and also in the post-communist democracies
does corruption appear to be neither less infrequent nor less significant.
Indeed, the Corruption Perception Index of Transparency International
reports the post-communist countries as significantly more corrupt than
their Southern European counterparts, and the newer democracies in
general as more corrupt than the long-established ones (see also van Biezen
and Kopecky, 2001).
Precisely why the newer democracies should be more susceptible to illicit
financing than (the majority of) Western European countries need not
concern us in great detail at this point, although it is noteworthy to underline the importance of the timing of party development vis-a-vis state
formation: patronage, clientelism and corruption in modern democracies
appear linked to a sequence in which political parties dependent on mass
electorates were established while the central state was generally weak, as
a result of which effective checks on executive power and mechanisms of
bureaucratic accountability are relatively poorly developed (see Piattoni,
2001; Shefter, 1977). What is particularly important to recognize in the
context of the arguments presented here, however, is that the widespread
availability of state support and the extensive public control of party activity
themselves may have contributed to the persistence of illicit party financing. This is so because, first of all, an abundance of rules may create perverse
incentives (see Clift and Fisher, and Eisenstadt, in this issue). Legislation has
thus at best only limited potential to diminish corrupt practices or to
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enhance public accountability. Indeed, in a context in which political actors


often prove reluctant to abide by the rule of law and may even be more
inclined to bear a relatively small administrative sanction, solutions to the
problem of illicit financing, fraud and corruption should arguably not
primarily be sought in tougher legislation.
In addition, excessive dependence on public resources may open up rather
than reduce the potential for corruption (cf. Gambetta, 2002). As Katz and
Mair (1995) have pointed out in the context of the established liberal
democracies, an ever increasing volume of public resources, including direct
funding, in-kind subsidies and state-regulated media access, has been made
available to political parties. Their strong linkage with the state may encourage parties to turn to the state also for resources in addition to the official
subsidies. The strong interdependence with the state may thus create incentives for parties to make unauthorized use of public assets and to extract
state resources through public office-holding positions by resorting to
patronage and clientelism. Systems of generous public funding may in fact
supplement rather than substitute clientelistic and corrupt forms of financing (Pasquino, quoted in Blanco, 1995: 165). The consequences of public
funding often therefore appear to have been ill considered. This is especially
relevant for the newer democracies, where state funding was usually available virtually from the outset of the transition and was often introduced
without much debate on the role public money should play in the financing of political parties (cf. del Castillo, 1989: 179).

Conclusion
The widespread access of parties to public funds has unquestionably developed a strong financial linkage between parties and the state. While the
introduction of state subventions may have contributed to a shifting orientation from society to the state in Western Europe, the early availability of
public subsidies in the newer European democracies coupled with the relatively weakly developed linkages with society results in no such shift ever
occurring, leaving parties largely dependent on, and oriented towards, the
state from the very beginning. Moreover, the close financial linkage with the
state has discouraged parties from looking for additional sources of income
(except for corrupt sources perhaps) and has thus removed a key incentive
to establish a more structural relationship with civil society.
Moreover, the excessive dependence on public funds has facilitated the
access to, and thereby encouraged the unauthorized use of, state resources.
As the strong dependence on the state may further strengthen the pervasive
patterns of patronage and corruption, illicit financing may serve to reinforce
the entrenchment of parties within the state (van Biezen and Kopecky, 2001:
424). In this sense, the potential of public subsidies to curtail improper
private financing appears to be limited and may even be counterproductive
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to its intentions. More generally, the practice of party financing may be less
malleable through direct state intervention than anticipated. Not only
public funding but also public law has an only limited capacity to regulate
and monitor patterns of political finance. At the very least, in many of the
new democracies, the institutional framework of public funding has
advanced a particular logic of appropriateness (March and Olsen, 1984)
which encourages a standard of behaviour that allows political actors to
operate within a relatively robust although rather inconsequential system of
statutory control on party finances.
The rapid development and expansion of party finance legislation which
is to hold parties publicly accountable for their internal affairs and external
activities underlines the particular conception of political parties as a special
kind of public good for democracy. At the same time, state regulation
contradicts and progressively undermines their organizational autonomy
and their status as private associations, turning parties into a unique type
of public utility. As Bartolini and Mair (2001: 340) contend, the more the
activities of parties are regulated by public law, the more this will lead to
their being defined as public service agencies. They go on to argue that this
may progressively weaken their internal hierarchical order and may ultimately undermine the capacity of political parties for institutional integration. This contention has a special relevance for the newer democracies.
Here, to a larger degree than in the established democracies, political parties
can be seen as encapsulated by the state and as primarily public institutions
which are part of the state apparatus rather than private institutions which
act as the agents of civil society, in a context in which their political integration capacity is already much more weakly developed.

Notes
In addition to the two anonymous referees, I would like to thank Todd Eisenstadt,
Justin Fisher, Jonathan Hopkin, Jeremy Jennings and Peter Mair for their very helpful
comments on an earlier draft of this article. The usual disclaimer applies.
1 See, for example, its legislative resolution A50167/2001 on the proposal for a
Council regulation on the statute and financing of European political parties
(COM [2000] 898 C5 0081/20012001/0011 [CNS]).
2 See, for example, the report adopted by its Commission for Democracy through
Law (the Venice Commission; report CDC-INF[2001]008) or Recommendation
Rec (2003[4]) of the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe, both
containing guidelines on the financing of political parties.
3 See www.idea.int/publications/funding_parties/fpp_book.htm.
4 Amongst others, Transparency International compiles subjective corruption scores
by country, published in the annual Index of Corruption Perception. See
www.transparency.org/surveys/index.html#cpi.
5 Financial Times, 12 February 2003.

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6 For a breakdown and more detailed analysis, see van Biezen, 2003: Ch. 8.
7 For Portugal it should be noted that the figures only cover election campaigns.
The dependence of parties on public money for the financing of their party
organizations is, with the exception of the Communist Party, on a similar level to
that of their Spanish counterparts. Furthermore, even for the financing of elections
the role of the state appears to be growing. A comparison of the 1995 and 2002
elections clearly shows an increase in importance of state subventions (from 10 to
46.1 percent) while contributions from private or voluntary fundraising declined
from 50.1 to 26.4 percent.
8 Unless indicated otherwise, the comparative figures in this section are drawn from
the findings of the Multidisciplinary Group on Corruption (GMC)/Working
Group on the Funding of Political Parties (GMCF) of the Council of Europe,
Report GMC (99) 23 Rev2, 9 June 2000. This includes an analysis of the legal
frameworks of political finance in 35 of its member states and 2 observer
countries, with information drawn from responses to a questionnaire. The focus
of the analysis presented here is on 30 European countries, of which 13 are old
democracies (Austria, Belgium, Finland, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland and the UK) and the
remaining 17 are newer political regimes, including a number of so-called illiberal
democracies (Albania, Croatia, Estonia, Georgia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia,
Lithuania, Macedonia, Moldova, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Russia, Slovakia,
Slovenia and Spain).
9 Table 2 only addresses the existence of limits on the amount of money that can
legally be spent on party and campaign activities and excludes legal provisions
regulating expenditures on certain types of activities. In the Netherlands, for
example, parties are not allowed to use state funding for election campaigns but
there are no limits on the amounts of party or campaign expenditure (Gidlund
and Koole, 2001: 128).

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PA RT Y P O L I T I C S 1 0 ( 6 )

van Biezen, Ingrid (2003) Political Parties in New Democracies: Party Organization
in Southern and East-Central Europe. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
van Biezen, Ingrid and Petr Kopecky (2001) On the Predominance of State Money:
Reassessing Party Financing in the New Democracies of Southern and Eastern
Europe, Perspectives on European Politics and Societies 2(3): 40129.

INGRID VAN BIEZEN is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the University


of Birmingham and has taught at the University of Leiden and the Johns Hopkins
University. She has published on political finance, party organization and party
membership in Western, Southern and East-Central Europe. Her most recent book
is Political Parties in New Democracies (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
ADDRESS: Department of Political Science & International Studies, University of
Birmingham, Edgbaston, Birmingham B15 2TT, UK. [email: i.c.vanbiezen@bham.
ac.uk]
Paper submitted 20 May 2003; accepted for publication 17 September 2003.

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