As the leading presidential candidates in next month's US elections debate whether to use controversial "soft money" to fund their drive for the White House, they might pause to consider how their European counterparts are grappling with the influence of money on the political process.
Across the Continent, investigating judges have uncovered a string of scams over the past decade by various European political leaders to finance campaigns illegally.
Some top political figures have been put behind bars. The historic achievements of others, such as former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, have been tarnished.
European states continue to experiment with laws on party financing. But they have demonstrated one thing that may be of concern to vice president and Democratic candidate Al Gore, who has promised to make campaign-finance reform the first bill he would sign if elected president: Legislation may only reshape the rules of the game of influence-buying. Reforms that make a democracy that's more respon- sive to all people, no matter how big their wallets, will require a deeper cultural shift, say experts.
As increasingly aggressive European judges target ruling and opposition parties alike, they have shown that "all countries have been hit by this," says Yves-Marie Doublet, a expert on political funding in Paris. "It is like the plague."
In France, if a posthumously released videotape of a top political fixer is to be believed, President Jacques Chirac's party paid for his successful 1995 campaign with illegal kickbacks from companies that won fixed public-works tenders. Mr. Chirac refuses to bow to demands that he explain himself, in the wake of the tape's publication two weeks ago.
In Germany, former Chancellor Kohl has seen his reputation as one of Europe's leading postwar statesmen sullied by revelations that he personally accepted $1 million in secret - and thus illegal - cash donations from sources he still refuses to name. His ignominy is such that he was not even invited to address last week's official 10th anniversary celebration of the reunification of Germany, which he oversaw.
In Italy, discovery of the secret ties between leading politicians, Mafia bosses, and businessmen brought the entire edifice of Italian politics crashing down, destroying the Christian Democratic Party that had ruled the country since World War II.
In Britain, Prime Minister Tony Blair's squeaky clean image has taken a beating from revelations that his Labour Party in 1997 accepted a 1 million ($1.46 million) donation from Bernie Ecclestone, the boss of Formula One racing. The Labour government then exempted Formula One from a Europe-wide ban on tobacco advertising. Labour was forced to return the money when the gift became known.
But if Europe is more scandal-prone than the US, it is because the laws governing political donations are now stiffer, says Larry Makinson, director of the Center for Responsive Politics in Washington. "You don't have crooks on Capitol Hill because seeing how the laws have been stretched in America, you don't need to break the law," he says. "What is illegal in Europe is done here as a market system: If you spend a lot of money on elections, you can buy yourself immunization from political action against you."
No government, it seems, has found a foolproof way to keep all politicians honest, but they continue to try.
Some countries, such as Spain and France, have adopted a "public model" of party financing, forbidding political parties to accept unlimited money from corporate donors or trade unions, much as McCain-Feingold, the campaign-finance reform bill that Mr. Gore supports, would forbid US corporations and unions from giving unregulated "soft money." Instead, parties are given state aid, in the hope that this would lessen their appetite for big private donations.
But it has not, and parties can always find ways around laws, especially when they are poorly enforced, so as to collect from corporations on the sly. "It is certainly true that state funding does not eradicate corruption," says Justin Fisher, who studies party funding at London's Brunel University.
A 'private model'
Other countries have adopted a "private model," such as Britain, where parties need make no disclosure about where they get their money, and are free to collect from business, trade unions, even foreigners. In the US, meanwhile, where disclosure rules are the most stringent in the world, the use of political-action committees and "soft money" means there is almost no limit on who can give, or on how much.
Buying access to politicians may be legitimate, says Jeremy Pope, executive director of Transparency International, an anticorruption watchdog group, "but the problem is how you stop access becoming influence. That's the nub of it."
One way, suggests Mr. Doublet, would be to allow corporations to fund political parties, and to use that transparency to track their relationships. "When you ban corporate donations you create illegality," he argues. "It would be better to organize them than to drive them underground."
"Soft money" as such is not illegal in Europe - just limited and subject to disclosure. Britain, where special interest "soft money" donations over 5 ($7.30) to issue campaigns are currently banned, was found to be in violation of European Union free speech statutes, and new legislation will increase the ceiling to $725.
Political corruption has become so widespread in France, argues Socialist member of parliament Arnaud Montebourg, partly because punishment for wrongdoing is light under French law, and also because "for too many years, the justice system was asleep."
Even in Germany, where it was Kohl who introduced strict new anticorruption laws in the 1980s in the wake of earlier scandals, apparently model legislation did not stop the Christian Democratic Party from amassing millions of illegal dollars in secret Swiss bank accounts.
"If there is a culture of kickbacks in a culture, it does not matter how much state funding you have, there will always be opportunities for them," warns Dr. Fisher.
Given the difficulties in controlling fundraising, the best way to attack the problem, argues Transparency International's Mr. Pope, is through spending limits. "I am absolutely convinced that the only way to have any hold on this is to control expenditure" on political campaigns, he says. "It sticks out a mile if people are breaking the limits."
Campaign spending limits
That is the approach that the British government has taken. Under legislation currently before parliament, political parties will be banned from spending more than 20 million ($29 million) each on a general-election campaign. At the last elections, the Conservatives spent 28 million ($48 million) and Labour spent 15 million ($22 million).
Though these figures are minute compared to American expenditures, parties have less need to spend money: TV and radio broadcasters are obliged to give each major party free airtime during campaigns, and paid broadcast advertisements are banned.
At the same time, British parties will be obliged under the new law to disclose the identity of large donors, and to refuse money from abroad. This sort of reform, say many political observers, is essential if voters are not to lose faith in their political leaders.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society