Mr. Helmut Kohl may no longer be Germany’s chancellor, a position he held for 16 years, but he continues to be one of the country’s most revered statesmen. He presided over the reunification of Germany and in the process helped the country become “a normal nation.” While each of his predecessors pushed Germany along that path, his steady hand and unwavering commitment to Europe were indispensable during a turbulent period of international politics.
In recent weeks, Germans have seen another side of Mr. Kohl, one that had been suspected — even reported — but largely ignored. The former chancellor has admitted he controlled secret accounts that were used to finance allies in his party, the Christian Democratic Union. Mr. Kohl denies that donations to those slush funds influenced decisions he took while in office. Even his critics acknowledge that the accounts were used merely to tighten his grip over the CDU, which he has headed since 1973. That is reassuring, but irrelevant: The accounts themselves are illegal.
Mr. Kohl’s explanation, that he “wanted only to serve his party,” is immaterial. The truth is that Germany’s leading political figure put himself above the law, and this attitude prevailed even after the country had been rocked by funding scandals in the ’60s and ’70s. Moreover, this is the man who represented German reliability and dependability to his public and the world.
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder has been quick to capitalize on the revelations. He has suffered a string of electoral defeats since besting Mr. Kohl last year and his grip on his own party has been challenged. But he cannot afford to gloat: The Social Democratic Party was hit by its own corruption scandal last month, when Mr. Schroeder’s successor as premier in Lower Saxony was accused of having others pay for his wedding and honeymoon.
There is a sad familiarity to the recent events unfolding in Germany. This week, three French politicians, including a former Cabinet minister went on trial in connection with a party-funding scandal involving about $4 million and Swiss bank accounts. The ruling Socialist Party has been reeling since Mr. Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the capable and popular finance minister, was forced to step down last month after being implicated in another funding scandal. Both sides of the aisle in Britain’s Parliament have also been tarred, as have politicians in Italy, Spain and Belgium. Not surprisingly, a recent survey of public opinion shows that 22 percent of West Europeans consider their governments “corrupt.”
Those sentiments are shared in Japan and the United States, neither of whose politicians have proven immune to temptation. It seems as though every month another Japanese politician is involved in some scandal involving illegal donations. In Washington, the cases are less frequent — although they still occur — but the real scandal is, as a pundit once observed, “not what is illegal, but what is legal.”
The corrosive effects of this behavior are plain: increasing cynicism about politics and decreasing voter participation. There is a growing belief that the first priority of politicians is re-election, and that fundraising is their full-time concern. In Japan, the Liberal Democratic Party’s recent gyrations on the question of corporate donations, and the ruling bloc’s decision not to ban such contributions, is proof that money is the measure of politics. The result is the ironic spectacle of an age heralded as “the triumph of liberal democracy” characterized by plummeting voter turnout.
A vicious, downward spiral ensues. Voter indifference only makes it easier for moneyed interests to gain influence. Breaking this cycle requires voters to accept that politics is expensive; if they do not pay for it, someone else will have to.
That is the logic behind decisions to provide public funds for politicians. Subsidies allow politicians to end their reliance on corporate donors. In turn, that would permit them to adjust their lives — by devoting more time to policy and less to panhandling — and their political decisions accordingly.
Public subsidies are not a cure-all. Unethical politicians will still amass whatever funds they can, from whatever sources they can. But drawing a bright line — banning all corporate donations — will make it easier to police the politicians.
Not surprisingly, politicians the world over have proven reluctant to police themselves. Responsibility thus falls on the shoulders of all those disaffected, cynical and apathetic voters. Contrary to public opinion, it is not too much to ask — especially in light of the alternative.
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