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Europe's corruption scandals

WESTERN LEADERS WHO ceaselessly lecture developing nations on the unacknowledged advantages of corruption-free, good governance must, it seems, turn the mirror inward. A recent series of embarrassing disclosures of corruption in high places in Western Europe, touching many of the leading lights, has shaken the well- entrenched establishments in these countries. The rash of scandals has been met by the launching of enquiries, raising questions about possible faultlines in the time-tested political system. In the summer, allegations against some party officials in Britain, including a few holding important positions, forced them to acknowledge possible misdeeds and malfeasance. The latest to suffer is the high profile former German Chancellor and architect of German unity, Mr. Helmut Kohl. Europe's superstar has admitted taking illicit cash donations and operating a system of secret slush funds during his long years at the helm and faces a criminal investigation that can result in imprisonment for five years and a hefty fine. Mr. Kohl initially denied any wrongdoing, stating only that the funds he received did not benefit him personally and had gone into the coffers of his ruling party, the Christian Democratic Union. Later he declined to cooperate with any enquiry that may need him to reveal the identity of the donors who had sworn him to secrecy. The decision to press ahead with the enquiry deals a major blow to a country that prides itself on total transparency in its public life.

The Kohl enquiry has provoked a widespread debate in Western Europe over the extent of such political corruption that cuts at the very root of democracy. Scandals at the headquarters of the European Union, in France, Spain, Belgium, Germany, Italy and across the Channel point to a deeper malaise in the system. The Nineties have as a matter of fact seen the fall from the pedestal of several politicians and bureaucrats following the uncovering of scandals. The political quakes began in Spain where the ruling Socialist party lost power over the issue of corruption. After last summer's campaign funding allegations against the U.S. President and the trial of ex-Ministers and connected resignations in Brussels came the scandal in France in November that saw the exit of the Finance Minister, Mr. Dominique Strauss- Kahn. His resignation followed an investigation into payments from a leftwing students' insurance fund before the elections in 1997. In almost all instances, including that involving the German statesman, the funds have gone primarily to the party rather than to individuals, possibly indicating where the system has rotted.

A population that is more and more disenchanted with the political leadership, an electorate that has become apathetic and, of even greater relevance, a dwindling party membership have all contributed to the situation. Funds for political organisation and for contesting elections have dried up to an alarming level, driving parties to outside sources that prefer to keep their identity untainted by political contact. Attempts to keep party funding above board, even through State funding, have proved of no avail. A post Cold War phenomenon, say some observers tendering the most plausible explanation for the malaise afflicting the political system. When the ideological dividing line has blurred to extinction, say these observers, parties have tended to ignore the rule book when raising resources. Political corruption, said Indira Gandhi in the early Seventies, was a global phenomenon. When she pronounced her judgment, there were many in the political opposition who ridiculed her. How prophetic she was.

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