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Regulating European Party Politics: Causes and Consequences

By Fernando Casal Bértoa

The question of how political parties are, and ought to be, regulated, has assumed increased importance in recent years. The legitimacy crisis experienced by the parties themselves, and also their progressive codification in public law, including national constitutions or party finance laws, have raised important questions, ranging from the motivations inspiring specific regulations to their effect on the parties and the party systems, and the underlying conceptions of the role and place of political parties in modern democracies.

Interestingly enough, and notwithstanding the fact that, both in Europe and elsewhere, political parties have increasingly (see figure 1) been subject to regulations governing their external activities or determining the way in which their internal organisation may function, none of the abovementioned questions has received the necessary attention, neither from political scientists nor from constitutional lawyers. Indeed, the few works dealing with the subject are mostly descriptive and lack a comparative dimension.

Figure 1. General increase in European party regulations


Source: Casal Bértoa et al. (2012)

Together with Ingrid van Biezen I have sought to evaluate the state of party regulation in Europe, its various dimensions, as well as its impact (or lack of it) on both post-authoritarian and post-communist parties and party systems.

Figure 2. Party constitutionalization in both Southern and Eastern Europe



Concentrating on the main aspects of party regulation, we examine topics like: (1) the regulation of party registration, organisation and finance from Portugal to Bulgaria, (2) restrictions on party activity and behaviour from Italy to Romania, (3) bans on political parties from Spain to Slovakia, (4) the framework for the monitoring of parties from Greece to Poland, (5) the sanctioning regime for those violating the law from Cyprus to the Czech Republic.

Looking at the history of party constitutionalization in these two regions (see figure 2), it seems clear that the recognition of political parties occurred in four different clusters, coinciding with the different waves of democratization and constitution-making in Europe. Thus, while the Italian constitution belongs to the so-called first wave of post WWII party constitutionalization, the incorporation of political parties in the Cypriot and Maltese constitutions only took place after these countries became independent in the early 1960s. What Huntington in 1990 called “the Third Wave” brought the constitutionalization of political parties in Greece, Portugal, Spain and Turkey. Following the examples set by their Southern European re-democratizers, post-communist constitutions started to regulate political parties – in the plural, rather than a single Communist party – after the collapse of the Soviet Bloc in the early 1990s.

Apart from constitutions, political parties are often regulated by so-called party laws. However, while this has been the norm in all post-communist democracies without exception, in Southern Europe such legislation exists only in Portugal and Spain (see table 2). Nevertheless, both in Eastern and Southern Europe there has been a general increase in the amount of regulation (see figure 1 above) arising from the need to strengthen internal party democracy and financial transparency after consolidation. In this respect, and as follows from table 2, it is reasonable that the two most regulated categories are external (mainly judicial) control and the extra-parliamentary party, closely followed by party finance (mainly derived from public sources), but only in those countries without a specific law on party finance. In fact, and with Ukraine as the only exception, it is to those two or three categories alone that all post-authoritarian and post-communist party laws devote more than 70 percent of their dispositions.

Table 1. Magnitude (%) of party regulation (Party Laws) in both Southern and Eastern Europe, by country

Country Democratic principles Rights & freedoms Activity & behaviour Identity & programme Extra-parliamentary party Electoral party Parliamentary party Governmental party Public/

Party finance


External oversight

Secondary legislation Media access
Bulgaria 1.2 0.4 2.0 20.9 36.0 29.6 9.9
Croatia 0.9 0.9 2.8 39.4 17.4 33.9 4.6
Czech R. 0.6 1.2 2.5 0.6 24.1 27.8 37.0 6.2
Estonia 1.0 1 5.1 35.7 2.0 2.0 22.4 21.4 9.2
Hungary 3.7 1.2 12.2 46.3 28.0 8.5
Latvia 0.5 1.6 2.7 52.9 1.6 1.1 4.3 28.9 6.4
Lithuania 4.9 6.5 7.3 7.3 47.6 2.4 11.0 9.8 3.7
Poland 0.4 0.4 1.8 1.8 16.4 24.4 45.3 8.4 0.9
Portugal 5.0 3.0 5.0 4.0 52.5 2.0 2.0 18.8 5.9 2.0
Romania 2.2 4.4 2.2 53.3 1.7 0.6 31.1 4.4
Serbia 1.4 0.7 5.6 52.4 1.4 34.3 4.2
Slovakia 0.5 0.5 0.5 29.0 27.6 37.6 4.3
Slovenia 0.7 1.4 34.0 0.7 29.3 32 2.0
Spain 2.3 2.3 12.5 5.5 31.3 0.8 38.3 7.0
Ukraine 1.6 2.4 11.9 6.3 35.7 6.3 8.7 2.4 24.6

Sources: Biezen and Casal Bértoa (2014a:75), Casal Bértoa and Biezen (2014b:298)

Table 2. Party funding regulation in both Southern and Eastern Europe: key components

Components Bulgaria Cyprus Czech R. Greece Hungary Italy Poland Portugal Romania Slovakia Spain
2001 2011 1993 2002 1989 2012 1997 2003 2006 2005 2007
Direct subsidies for
Electoral expenses X (+) X (+) X X (+) X * X X *
Ordinary activities X (+) X (+) X (+) X (+) X (+) X (+) X (+) X (+) X (+) X (+) X
Indirect subsidies
Free access to media * * * X * * * * * * *
Tax exemptions X X * X * X X * X
Ban on  
Foreign donations X X X X X X X X X
Private company donations X X X X X
Public donations X X X X X * X X X X X
Anonymous donations X X X X X X X
Caps on
Donations X X X X X X X
Expenditure X * X X X X X X *
Financial reports X X X X X X X X X X X
Controlling authority:          
Political Party X X X X
Parliament X X X
State Administration X X X X X X X X
Judiciary X X
Administrative (i.e. fine) X X X X * X X X X X X
Criminal (i.e. imprisonment) * * X * * X X X *

Notes: X = provisions present in Party Finance Laws; * = provisions present but provided in a different piece of legislation; + = guaranteed also to non-parliamentary parties.

Sources: Adapted from Biezen and Casal Bértoa (2014a:81),  and Casal Bértoa and Biezen (2014b:309)

In terms of party finance regulation, Southern and Eastern European democracies differ not only in the range of parties having access to public subsidies – even if none of them, with the exception of Spain, currently limits such access only to parliamentary parties – but also in the type of state aid to which parties are entitled (see table 2). Still, most of the countries in these two regions guarantee political parties compensation for their electoral expenses, free media access and certain tax benefits.

Post-authoritarian and post-communist democracies also differ, as follows from the table above, in the extent to which private funding is restricted, how party financial activities are scrutinized and the way in which illegal funding is sanctioned. Where they seem to coincide, though, is in the prohibition of donations made by public or semi-public companies, the obligation of political parties to submit annual financial declarations, and the imposition of pecuniary fines for violations of the law. Interestingly enough, neither Bulgaria nor Slovakia contemplate imprisonment in case of illegal funding activities.

In terms of the consequences of party regulation, most of the contributions in the two special issues co-edited by Ingrid van Biezen and the author (in SESP as well as EEP) analyse at least one of the different ways in which party regulation can affect party and party system development, namely through the amount of regulation, party registration requirements, the existence and/or distribution of public subsidies, private funding limitations or party bans. However, and because not everything is about the “funding of party politics”, a couple of pieces deal with what could be called “the politics of party funding”, treating party regulation as a dependent, rather than an independent, variable. Another (seminal) one puts its emphasis on the way parties’ finances are monitored, with a particular focus on the entity in charge of such control.

All in all, the general finding of these two special issues is that while party regulation has had an uneven impact on party system development in the post-communist region, it has certainly fostered the “cartelization” of Southern European parties and party systems.

Fernando Casal Bértoa is a Nottingham Research Fellow in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Nottingham and director of the Party Systems and Government Observatory (PSGo)

Image credit: Irish Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Published inEastern EuropeEuropean PoliticsInternational PoliticsInternational RelationsPolitics


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