Sarkozy, Berlusconi… How voters react on criminal cases of high-profile politicians

French ex-President Sarkozy questioned, Italian ex-PM Berlusconi sentenced, Slovenian ex-PM sentenced… I know there is no connection between those cases and I do not want to make some deep conclusions out of it. But do you think that similar high-profile affairs may have some impact on voters in Europe? We have seen, e. g. in the EP elections, that people are somehow fed up with the “ordinary” politics.  Read few comments.

Dimitris Tsarouhas Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, Bilkent University

Indeed the mentioned cases are not directly related, nor are such cases particularly new. Yet they come at a time of deep disillusionment among the European public with the political class, and regardless of ideological color.

Such cases feed scepticism and lead to voter apathy. They also direct the debate away from what should be no.1 priority in Italy, France etc., namely employment and and sustainable growth instead of mindless austerity. Finally, such cases feed into Euroscepticism to the extent they provide fertile ground for the rejection of political elites, most of whom are identified with the course and direction of the EU in recent years.

Davide DentiPhD student, School of International Studies, University of Trento, Editor for East Journal

 To me, overall, seems a good thing that even former PMs are questioned, tried, and sanctioned for their (mis)deeds. It means that the law applies to everyone, even at the highest political level, and that none can count on impunity based on his/her political position. The same has happened lately to Jansa in Slovenia and to Sanader in Croatia, so the trend is EU-wide and not limited to (supposedly) consolidated Western democracies. Concerning the impact on voters, I am not sure whether there is one; those who voted for these politicians tend to discount their juridical troubles as persecution, so I don’t think it would have an impact at all on voters.

Paulo Vila MaiorAssistant Professor, the Faculty of Human and Social Sciences, University Fernando Pessoa

The fact that some high-profile politicians face criminal accusations is a symptom that a landmark of liberal democracies is at work: the separation of powers between the executive, the legislative and courts. To this extent, there is no surprise on recent examples (Sarkozy, Berlusconi, the Slovenian Prime-minster). Furthermore, they convey the message that very important politicians are not excluded from courts’ scrutiny whenever they breach the law. The impact on voters is another issue. It may have some consequences for parties, notably when the electorate decides to punish the parties of politicians involved in criminal scandals. At the same time, I see no correlation between this issue and the electorate’s absence in recent European Parliament elections. The reasons for the increasing turnover in European Parliament elections are to be found elsewhere. I admit, nevertheless, that the salience of criminal scandals among high-profile, mainstream parties’ politicians might be one of the several reasons why radical right-wing and left-wing parties increased their share of members of the European Parliament.

Robert LadrechProfessor of European Politics, School of Politics, International Relations & Philosophy, Keele University

You are right not to generalise deep conclusions, but it is true that in some countries even leading politicians, such as Hollande in France, are at historic lows in terms of public opinion. I’m not sure it is scandals per se that are turning people off with ordinary politics, rather that ‘ordinary’ politics does not seem to make much of a difference. This should be cross-references with those countries hit hardest by the financial/economic crisis. Still, even in Germany, the EP elections showed people deserting Merkel’s CDU; in Spain a brand new internet-campaigning party on the left scored really well, 5 Star Movement in Italy came out of nowhere as well; the initial enthusiasm in some countries for the Pirate party, all seem to show that it is not exactly scandals that are weakening the hold of traditional mainstream parties but the practice of politics and centrist policies that are turning off people.

Alexander KazamiasSenior Lecturer in Politics, Coventry University

Yes, I think you are absolutely right about drawing such conclusion. There is a strong and growing tendency among voters that politicians are unethical and corrupt and the examples you mentioned will certainly confirm this image further.

Corruption is an endemic feature of modern politics, not only in the so-called ‘Banana Republics’ of Africa and Latin America, but also across many European democracies. British ministers and dozens of MPs in recent years have been suspended or forced to resign either for lying about their incomes or for asking parliamentary questions in return for cash. The former prime ministers of Italy, Silvio Berlusconi, of Croatia, Ivo Sanader, of Slovenia, Janez Jansa, and former Greek deputy prime minister Akis Tsochatzopoulos were all recently sent to prison or will do community service for tax fraud and/or embezzling public funds. Moreover, two senior German ministers have also resigned since 2011 because they had plagiarised their PhDs, a case of both intellectual theft and fraud. In this European context, it will not be surprising if the recent questioning of former President Nicolas Sarkozy leads to incriminating findings.

These selective examples relate only to the cream of European politicians, but a more extensive survey would certainly reveal a far more shocking picture. What is even more worrying, however, is that strong evidence suggests that the majority of corruption scandals involving politicians are never revealed. According to independent agencies, like the Brookings Institute and Transparency International, the estimated levels of corruption indicate that the confirmed cases constitute only the tip of the iceberg of what is actually going on. According to Transparency International, 76% of Germans believe that their government’s efforts to fight corruption are ‘ineffective’, while 70% believe that corruption in their country has increased since 2010. Similar figures can be found across most EU member states. Meanwhile, European governments are under growing pressure to appear to be fighting corruption, especially after the severe recession and austerity policies of the past few years. But it would be utterly misleading to think that the high profile cases which have recently seen the light of publicity go anywhere near addressing the problem in its proper dimensions.

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