Austria toughens anti-graft laws after scandals

VIENNA - After a series of corruption scandals implicating top politicians, Austria is moving to reform its anti-graft legislation, which is deemed too lax by many.

Reporting rules on political party donations and lawmakers' incomes will be toughened in a bill in May that is expected to become law before the summer - high time, according to many observers.

"We have a party financing law that required no transparency, and which allowed no checks and envisioned no sanctions," said the former chief of the court of auditors, Franz Fiedler, now an advisor to anti-corruption watchdog Transparency International.

Political analyst Anton Pelinka said "a clear rule is required once and for all for public grants to parties and for party spending to be published," adding that violators must face "the most severe sanctions".

The coalition government of the social-democratic SPO and conservative OVP on April 27 agreed a reform package to crack down on political corruption following a string of high-profile scandals in recent years.

Amid the sleaze allegations, Austrians' confidence in their political elites has plunged. Polls showed 85 per cent thinking in 2011 that there was corruption on a national level, up from 66 per cent in 2009.

"Improvements were necessary in order to bring us up to international standards on tackling graft," Chancellor Werner Faymann said after a meeting of his grand coalition approved the new "transparency package."

The measures, which Faymann said would be turned into a bill by May 15 and go before parliament before the summer, "will prove to people that we can become a role model for Europe."

Political parties will in future have to inform the audit office of all donations above 5,000 euros (S$8,170), down from 7,260 euros (S$11,900) now, while lawmakers will have to declare any income from outside legislative work.

At the moment, even if irregularities are uncovered, courts are unable to take action.

Parties receive almost 200 million euros in funding a year, making them among the best funded in the world relative to the number of voters.

This stems from Austria's 'grand coalition' tradition, said Fiedler, as the SPO and OVP have shared power for most of the post-World War II period.

But this arrangement has also led to lax controls, and a series of scandals that forced a commission of inquiry to be opened into the cases.

One affair involved the public Telekom Austria and several political figures, including former vice-chancellor Hubert Gorbach, who allegedly took bribes to influence laws adopted in the telecom sector.

During the trial, Austrians learnt that the draft telecommunications law was in fact written by Telekom Austria's management.

Another scandal surrounded the 2004 privatisation of the property firm Buwog, in which former finance minister Karl-Heinz Grasser was embroiled, with accusations of favouritism and personal enrichment.

The gaps in Austrian law were underlined by the Council of Europe's Group of States Against Corruption at the end of last year. Vienna was asked to adopt 21 recommendations before June 2013.

European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding said in February that "deep reforms" were required in Austria.

OVP chief Michael Spindelegger, who is also vice-chancellor, noted that Austria's parties had too long been dragging their feet on the issue.

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