DIE ZEIT: Mr. Sickinger, if you were a wealthy entrepreneur who wanted to support a party with a lot of money but would like to remain undetected, how would you proceed?
Hubert Sickinger: It is not legally possible to remain unknown as a major donor. But it was completely clear what Heinz-Christian Strache meant in the Ibiza video. You donate not to the party itself, but to a club that is formally independent of the party.
ZEIT: And how does the party benefit from this?
Sickinger: By the club assuming expenses that are coordinated with and benefit the party. Invoices for election advertising materials can be accepted or party employees can also be hired. According to the Political Law, these are donations. But: If a third party pays the bills, it is not in the party's bookkeeping. And not in the documents that the auditors can see as they check whether the party's accountability report is correct.
ZEIT: A first reaction to Ibiza was that the party law was tightened in July 2019 and a donation limit was introduced.
Sickinger: This amendment was primarily aimed at the upcoming National Council election. The SPÖ and FPÖ feared that the ÖVP would swim in the money and have large donors who were not known - which later proved to be true.
ZEIT: So the law was a PR abuse?
Sickinger: In any case, it wasn't the answer to Ibiza. The reality was that the ÖVP could not again finance a far overpriced election campaign with large donations and that exceeding the campaign cost limit would result in higher fines. In 2017, according to the information available at the time, the ÖVP collected 2.1 million euros about a donation campaign on Sebastian Kurz's campaign page, mostly from large donations. And as it turned out later, there were actually three and a half million.
ZEIT: You consider the ceilings of 750,000 euros introduced at that time for all donations and 7,500 per donor a year even counter-productive. Why?
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Sickinger: No increased controls were decided in July 2019. Only large donations were forbidden - this is actually an incentive for circumvention, i.e. exactly what Strache addressed in the Ibiza video.
ZEIT: What Strache suggested in the video is still legal?
Sickinger: No, the Political Parties Act includes contributions in kind as a donation - but this is difficult to prove with the current control system.
ZEIT: In 2013, a so-called transparency package was decided, which should ensure more cleanliness in politics. You also praised that at the time. Did Ibiza show us gaps that were not thought of?
Sickinger: The independent party transparency senate initially failed completely when it came to campaign funding for parliamentary clubs in the 2013 National Council election. He reacted in a rather formalist way to a report from the Court of Auditors, saying that the Court of Auditors could only report possible violations that resulted from the review of the accountability report. And the reports of the FPÖ and the SPÖ did not show that there were assumptions for costs from the parliamentary club - these are illegal donations. The Senate apparently did not want to impose fines of millions. Part of the party law has thus failed. Since 2018, however, the Senate's practice has become significantly stricter.