In Politics, Money Isn’t Everything – Transitions Online

Crowdfunding is opening new horizons for democracy in the digital age.

Money is to politics as rain is to the fertility of the soil. It is a relation as old as humanity itself, at least from the point when  some people invented a way to govern other people. But it has never been so easy to collect money from a pool of ordinary folks for any purpose, politics included, as in this time of burgeoning digital democracy.

Political crowdfunding has arrived in Central Europe and is developing into an innovative tool that can give political newcomers access to an often very static and monolithic political stage where parties live off state subsidies according to their election results.

Look at Poland, where the independent candidate and former TV star Szymon Holownia broke through into the top league of politics during the spring presidential election.

Crowdfunding was key to financing his campaign: According to his chief of staff, Michal Kobosko, Holownia raised 7.5 million zloty (about $2 million) through small donations. The average individual gift was 52 zloty.

Empowered by his third-place finish, Holownia is now trying to transform his support base into a movement and possibly also a formal party to run in the next parliamentary elections in three years.

“The [political] system gives priority to political parties and it’s set in concrete to make it hard for newcomers and independents,” Kobosko complains.

The Czech Pirate Party might have had similar feelings when it turned to crowdfunding as it tried to break into national politics in the late 2000s. By 2017, when the most recent parliamentary elections were held, its campaign budget had received a nice boost from small donors – their gifts amounted to a tenth of the total campaign fund: 734,000 crowns ($33,000) – twice the target amount.

The Pirate Party, of course, was born in the online world.

“It’s natural for our supporters to use this form of donation and for us to administer it,” says Mikulas Ferjencik, deputy party leader and one of the brains behind the party’s crowdfunding campaigns.

The Pirates, now the third-strongest party in the Czech Parliament and the second or third party in the polls, will rely on crowdfunding even more going into next year’s parliamentary elections, especially seeing that the strongest political force, the ANO movement of Prime Minister Andrej Babis, has de facto unlimited resources thanks to the billions of dollars in assets the wealthy Babis has at his disposal.

“We think people will understand that it is necessary to level the playing field and crowdfunding can help do that,” Ferjencik says.

Other Central European parties are more cautious. Crowdfunding works in politics only when it is directly tied to a specific project (the last Pirate campaign hook was a pirate boat ride on the Vltava River) or to a personality. As Barack Obama’s first campaign exemplified, this is how it works in the United States, where politicians depend on private money and fundraising is the key to any successful campaign.

Holownia, who was a TV professional and had online fundraising experience running charity campaigns, is one example. In the Czech environment, former presidential candidate Marek Hilser used his relative success in the 2018 presidential race as a springboard to win a Senate seat later the same year, thanks to a crowdfunded campaign. The anti-Babis protest movement called A Million Moments for Democracy is also financed this way.

Raising money through small donations is not a perfect cleanser for dirty politics. But it opens a new window of possibilities for candidates, parties, and voters as well. According to Kobosko and Ferjencik, crowdfunding helps build connections and bonds with hardcore voters who, by giving even a small amount, are crossing the thin line from being politically passive voters to active players.

This is just what is most needed, and not only in Central Europe, for sclerotic liberal democracies struggling with populism and nationalism. 

“We had a package: a T-shirt and couple of campaign newspapers, which people bought and handed out,” Ferjencik says, describing the Pirates’ strategy during the last parliamentary campaign.

So primarily it is about money, but the secondary effect is to widen the support base and increase the number of volunteers. And then there is the third effect: in the online world, those willing to pay are also willing to discuss and defend their decision and their party and candidates. This is increasingly important in times of fake news and deceptive campaigns.

With supporters like these, you need to be honest and transparent.

“You have to have a good brand,” because any scandals will 

hurt your supporters in online forums, Ferjencik says.

That puts a lot of pressure on the party itself, and this might be one of the main reasons why mainly liberal and transparent parties and candidates are most active in this emerging digital democracy environment, in a positive sense – not only spreading lies and fake news but encouraging people to take an active part in the political process.

Martin Ehl is chief analyst at Hospodarske noviny, a Czech business daily. 

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