Still plagued by sleazy politics

by Hugh Cortazzi

LONDON — There is understandably a great deal of cynicism about politicians in every country. Their reputation is probably now lower than that of any other profession because they have so often been exposed as liars and/or as corrupt.

When the Labour Party succeeded in taking power in Britain, it did so because the electorate had become disillusioned by the sleaze that had tainted a number of Conservative Party politicians.

Prime Minister Tony Blair promised a new era in politics, but it soon became clear that Labour Party politicians were just as interested as their predecessors in the trappings and perks of politics, from chauffeur-driven cars to ministerial residences and luxury travel.

They were also just as hypocritical. Like their predecessors they were happy to pull strings for their friends. They did not like the fact that their private lives were open to public scrutiny and, as their predecessors had done, did all they could to smear their critics. Last year David Blunkett was twice forced to resign from the Cabinet. Peter Mandelson, now British member of the European Commission, had also twice been forced to resign from the Cabinet for mistakes that could not be dismissed as errors of judgment.

Nobody has accused either Blair or his likely successor Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, of being corrupt, but doubts have been expressed about the way in which Blair’s wife seems to have taken advantage of her position as wife to the prime minister to earn money from speaking engagements. Blair would deny that he lied over the intelligence on Iraq and he may well have believed the intelligence at the time, but few doubt that the intelligence was manipulated to justify an action that had already been decided. The Labour government’s reputation for spin has led some to allege that its ministers think presentation is more important than substance.

Foreign observers may be surprised that in these circumstances the opposition have not done better, but the Conservatives (Tories) remain tainted by their past and are seen by many as “has beens” incapable of appealing to the mass of the electorate. While they managed to reduce the government’s majority at the last election they showed no real signs that they could be in a position to defeat the government at the next election. They made the mistake of tailoring their policies to committed Tory voters rather than appealing to the center as the Labour Party has been doing.

They may now have realized the error of their ways. The new Conservative Party leader is David Cameron, 39, who seems to have charisma and eloquence. He has only been in Parliament for a few years and has no ministerial experience. He is aiming to appeal to the middle class, and, accordingly, he has been doing his best to distance himself from Tory rightwing policies that have disillusioned so many voters. Some have called him a Blair clone, and it remains to be seen whether he can move from vague platitudes to the enunciation of policies that will be sufficiently different from those of the Labour Party but will appeal to the political center.

The Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, which unlike the Conservatives consistently opposed the Iraq war, improved their position at the last election but showed no sign of being able to become the main opposition party. They unfortunately have had a leadership crisis. Charles Kennedy, their leader in the House of Commons, has confessed to having a drink problem and to have lied to conceal it in recent months.

Recent revelations reveal serious cases of corruption on Capitol Hill. They will not surprise anyone who has seen the lobbies at work in the United States, but it is not good news for the president or the Republican Party even if the Democrats cannot pretend to be guiltless.

Few would argue that Japanese politicians are not also deeply indebted to the lobbies, e.g., those campaigning for agricultural organizations and postal services. More worrying are the lobbies connected with the construction industry. Recent reports of apartment blocks and other buildings being falsely certified as safe against earthquakes give serious grounds for concern. The authorities need to fully investigate these reports to discover where responsibility for such false certification really lies. Was there a conspiracy between architects, construction companies and bureaucrats and were any politicians involved?

The reputation of politicians in other countries is no better. It is said that corruption goes right up to the top in France, and that only President Jacques Chirac’s title saves him from prosecution. In Italy the reputation of Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi could not be lower. He seems to have manipulated the legal process to his own advantage and to have had the law altered to prevent charges being brought against him.

The situation in non-democratic countries is almost certainly worse. Russian President Vladimir Putin appears to be totally unscrupulous and yet he now holds the chair in the Group of 8. In China it would seem that corruption is rife, especially in the provinces despite Draconian laws and repressive measures.

Unfortunately the situation in many developing countries is even worse. The extent of corruption in some African states is a serious drain on their limited resources and raises real doubts about whether, until corrupt practices are eradicated, increased aid can effectively be given to such countries.

Those who live in glass houses should not, of course, throw stones, but voters everywhere in democratic countries can at least make clear their disapproval of dishonest practices by voting against corrupt politicians at the next elections. We should also call on our governments to disassociate themselves clearly from corrupt leaders in other countries.