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Global Media Forum

The root of all evil? How money corrupts democracy

Former Belgian Prime Minister and Secretary General of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance Yves Leterme tells DW what impact money has on politics and how the US differs to Europe.

Deutsche Welle: IDEA has a film on the power of money in politics, which will have its European premier at the Global Media Forum. Could you briefly explain what the film is about?

Yves Leterme: Well it is about a broad subject of the financing of politics - of candidates, of campaigns, political parties, and in politics as a whole. We've published a lot about this and it focuses on the practice of fundraising - fundraising through contacts with corporate people, but also through the use of new ICT tools to do crowdfunding. So it's about fundraising for supporting political campaigns and technical aspects - the potential role new tools play, and of course also about the impact fundraising and the impact the source of fundraising has on decision-making in democratic processes, and how these democratic processes tend to be biased by the origin of the financing of political campaigns.

IDEA considers campaign funding to be a threat to democracy. Is money indeed the root of all evil, when it comes to political financing?

This is very crucial in the definition of democracy: Democracy is a way to govern a country, a nation, where the exercise of power is monitored, controlled, by citizens and - very importantly - typically for democracy, there is equality among citizens in the exercise of that control. Well it's very obvious that money, the fact that people can donate and that politicians receive money, endangers that equality, which is really fundamental to a well-functioning democracy. To to that extent, the way the funding of political parties and the financing of campaigns and the fundraising is organized, this endangers the quality of democracy and democracy as such.

What about the showmanship in the current US presidential campaigns and the way it's portrayed in international media? What role and responsibility do the media have in all of this?

What is very typical and specific to the US situation is that contrary to most of the parties in countries in Europe, there is no such thing as the public funding of political campaigns, so these [US] campaigns are privately funded. And the second very important difference is that there is no access for free to ads on TV. In the average European country, you will have a volume of TV ads which are allocated freely to political parties. In the US you don't have such a thing. So there is a lack of public funding on the one hand and on the other hand, the need to find money to buy TV time. This is a very typically American situation and this explains the reason why fundraising is so important and plays a crucial central role in the campaigns in the US.

So going by the role of money and the threat that it poses to democracy, would you say the US' political campaign system is less democratic than what you see in Europe?

USA Proteste gegen Donald Trump San Diego

Donald Trump's divisive rhetoric is having a polarizing effect. Here supporters clash with protesters in San Diego on May 27, 2016

Well referring again to the definition of democracy - equality amongst the citizens in the exercise of control on executive power - that equality is endangered by the fact that people donate their own money. When you think that nearly half of the spending of the US campaigns is used to buy TV time and when you think about the volume that is needed to buy the TV time, you easily understand that there is a lot of money needed and so this brings citizens in different positions in terms of their interactions with politicians, which biases equality, which is a fundamental characteristic of democracy.

The way that the US campaigning is portrayed in the media - it seems to be quite an entertaining spectacle. Do you think there is any kind of risk that this trend will come to Europe?

Not to that extent. There is much more regulation, there is much more control [in Europe]. There are lots of limits to spending and there is also quite an important control mechanism established in Europe about where the money comes from. Very typical for the US situation is that the Supreme Court has ruled that, donating to politicians and campaigns and political parties is a kind of fundamental, constitutional right for Americans. And that fundamental constitutional right cannot be too limited. This is totally contrary to the situation in Europe, where there are very strict limits on donations to political parties. And once again, there is public funding for political campaigns in Europe. So I think these are a few aspects that make it less probable that we would have the same situation in Europe. Although I have to make a couple of exceptions: In Central and Eastern Europe, there are countries where the regulation is weaker, or where it's not really implemented, and where you see phenomena that are comparable to the situation in the US. But on average, as a whole, Europe is in a totally different position. There is free access to TV advertising, to TV media time. And there is much more regulation and control on the sources of funding and there are limitations on the spending.

At the beginning, not many people took Donald Trump seriously, but now it looks like he'll be up against Hillary Clinton. Why do you think that Trump has been able to come so far?

Well apparently he will be the nominated candidate for the Republicans so he will probably stand against Hillary Clinton so he has a chance of course as a candidate. Of course, we are still early in the campaign, so we will have to see how it unfolds. Typically in the US, we would have very close results - it's a divided country, a bipartisan country, so one could imagine that it would be close to 50/50 in the division between the Republicans and Democrats. But Churchill always said a week is a long time in politics and four to five months from election day, it's still too early to make any forecasts.

Is it worrisome that Trump has been able to get so far - keeping in mind that the US is such a dominant military power?

Well it is not a tradition for International IDEA to make assessments, evaluations, or to comment in terms of risks. We hope that the debate between now and November will be a good debate in terms of quality - a good democratic debate and that people who go to the polls to vote for the presidential candidates will do that in a very informed way, that there will be a total absence of fraud and that the whole process will be transparent. And that's what is important for us. And it's up to the US citizens to decide who will lead their country and let's hope that he or she will fulfill the mandate in a good way, including in a way that suits, meets, European interests.

Does it say anything about the quality of democracy in the US?

Well I think the process of democratic decision-making in the US is clearly biased by the vested interests, by interests represented through funding. It's one of the tools they use. It's clear for instance that the weapons industry, that some other interest groups play a crucial role in the funding of campaigns - the funding of Republicans or the Democrats and via this funding, they manage to have a lot of leverage to get what they want to achieve in the programs of both Republicans and Democrats. That's quite typically American. If I elaborate on one example, the fact that weapons are so widely spread and that so many weapons are so freely accessible in the US: this is clearly linked to the political power that that sector has through the funding of political campaigns.

Yves Leterme Ausschnitt

Yves Leterme

A very important date is coming up for Europe this June, when the Brexit referendum in the UK will be held. What is your opinion on Brexit?

Well I think the exit of the UK out of the European Union would be a bad thing for the European Union and it would be a bad thing for the United Kingdom. I think the EU has some problems to address; we have some issues to tackle, but I think it is important to do that together with the UK and I hope that the outcome of the referendum will be positive. I think the current challenges that political decision making is facing need international cooperation and having the European Union is a very important platform of having that cooperation, structure and institution. For cooperation, it is crucial. And to have the UK included in it is of the utmost importance and I think it would be bad for the European Union, it would be bad for the UK, if the UK decided to leave the European Union.

IDEA has recently accepted Brazil as a new member state. How does this fit in with regards to the tumult over Dilma Rousseff's presidency?

Well what seems important to us and our member states is that constitutional provisions are applied and that what is happening in Brazil goes in a peaceful way. Of course, we all can have opinions about the content, about the substance, about what is at stake. But I think it's very important that Brazil shows that democracy is deeply rooted in the attitude, their traditions, their culture now and the way they want to take decisions about the different opinions they have and that the impeachment process like it was carried out is carried out in accordance to the constitutional rules.

What is the most important message IDEA wishes to carry to the world about democracy?

I think that democracy is the best way to, in a sustainable way, settle differences in opinion - be it on an individual level, be it on the level of a municipality, or of a nation or regions. It's always better to sit around a table and to decide with the use of democratic tools than turn to violence. And so it is a more difficult way, it is a more labor-intensive resource-intensive way to settle problems, but it is the only one that is sustainable in the long run.

Yves Leterme served as prime minister of Belgium (2008 - 2011) and is currently the secretary-general of the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (International IDEA). He will be joining us at the Global Media Forum 2016 for the European Premiere of the International IDEA film "Power in our Pockets: Social Media, Money and Politics in the Digital Age" and he will also be speaking at the session titled "From Nobel Peace Prize winner to state of crisis - is a European political public sphere possible?"

Interview conducted by Sarah Berning

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