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EU: Free and Fair? How to Keep Incumbents From Using Power Of Office To Win Elections (Part 1)

By K. Knox/R. Eggleston/J. Blocker

A general election is called. The campaign starts rolling. Incumbents and their opponents dash around the country meeting the public and drumming up support. What could be more tempting for incumbent politicians than taking advantage of the perks of office -- transport, staff, equipment -- to help their re-election bid? In Ukraine, which holds parliamentary elections on31 March, allegations that seated politicians close to President Leonid Kuchma are using their incumbent status to unfair advantage has shed a spotlight on incumbency issues worldwide. As the OSCE calls for a "level playing field" in Ukraine, we take a look at the rules that regulate incumbent campaigners in established democracies. In part one of a two-part series, RFE/RL corespondents Joel Blocker, Roland Eggleston, and Kathleen Knox report on guidelines in three EU countries -- France and Germany, which go to the polls this year, and the U.K., which last year gave Tony Blair's Labour Party a second term in office.

Prague, 27 March 2002 (RFE/RL) -- When Scottish politician Henry McLeish entered the British Parliament in the late 1980s, he, like most of his colleagues, claimed the rent for his constituency office from the public coffers. That was all fine -- until McLeish sublet part of the office, receiving some $50,000 in rent over the years while still claiming his public allowance to cover "office costs." Last year, the scandal proved costly to McLeish, by then the head of Scotland's devolved government. He resigned under a cloud, forever associated with an affair the press dubbed "Officegate."

McLeish's misuse of taxpayers' money occurred over a number of years, not just at election time. But Stuart Weir, of Britain's political monitor Democratic Audit, says it is still an example of how politicians use the privileges of office to help their re-election bids.

"The most notorious and recent example is that of Henry McLeish, who was the first minister in Scotland who claimed office rental allowances and put that money into his local Labour Party for dealing with constituents' requests and information and so on. So that money went directly into his electoral prospects. And that was seen by most Labour Party members at the time as a very normal thing, so that suggests that practice is fairly widespread."

In the United Kingdom, a ministerial code of conduct bars ministers from using anything connected with their office -- from funds to equipment to transport -- for party or constituency business.

Sally Pugh deals with ministerial and civil service ethics at the government's Cabinet Office. Most importantly, she says, the code of conduct applies to the use of civil servants -- the permanent staff who serve each government and who are required to be impartial.

"[A minister] wouldn't be able to use staff -- permanent civil servants who are employed to support the government of the day, not the party. It would be wrong for the prime minister or ministers to use them for any party political work."

Fiona Dick is press secretary at the Committee on Standards in Public Life, which was set up in the late 1990s in the wake of corruption allegations against a number of top politicians. Dick says the rules are especially strict during an election campaign.

"They cannot use civil service resources to get across a party message. So just as we cannot put out press notices, for example, on what [ministers] say at party political conferences, we cannot during an election run-up make announcements that might be seen as party political. We are very constrained about what anybody can say in an election run-up. Effectively, they stop being ministers once an election's been called."

Once an election is called, ministers and members of parliament have no access to their offices, cars and equipment. The problem, says Democratic Audit's Weir, is that electioneering isn't confined to the campaign trail. He says there are plenty of examples of ministers announcing key spending decisions in areas chosen to maximize their electoral advantage.

If ministers are also members of parliament, the parliamentary standards commissioner can scrutinize their conduct -- but only in their parliamentary capacity. Weir says another weakness here is that not all ministers are members of parliament -- some are appointed from the House of Lords (upper house of parliament).

That leaves only the code of conduct, which is self-regulating. That means it's up to the prime minister to decide if a minister has overstepped the mark and should quit.

Critics argue that this leaves a gap in public accountability, and that there should be an independent arbiter -- a kind of ethics commissioner -- to investigate allegations against ministers.

But even if ministers did have their own watchdog, would it help raise standards in public life? The post of parliamentary standards commissioner was set up in the late 1990s as part of efforts to increase scrutiny of Britain's politicians. By all accounts, the first person to fill that post -- Elizabeth Filkin -- performed her task admirably. But that didn't endear her to members of parliament. She decided not to reapply for the position, complaining that her job had been undermined by pressure from parliament members, "some holding high office."

In Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder is running for re-election in September, the issue of abuse of office is a sensitive one for the public. Defense Minister Rudolf Scharping got into hot water recently when it was revealed he had frequently used military planes to fly to visit his girlfriend. Scharping's publicly funded trysts were not related to any election campaign. But the uproar surrounding the case may serve as a warning sign to politicians like Schroeder to keep their office duties and personal interests -- whether private or campaign-related -- distinct and separate.

In the Bundestag, German parliamentarians are bound by a code of behavior regarding possible conflicts of interest. A parliamentary spokesperson emphasized that they are only guidelines and have no legal force. If a member of parliament violates the code he or she may suffer political consequences but not prosecution. Similar rules are also in force for the 16 provincial parliaments in Germany.

The spokeswoman said she knew of no specific instances in recent times when the code had been violated by a member of the federal parliament. Nor could she give any examples of parliamentarians making offers to individuals in return for their votes.

In France, there are laws on the books specifically prohibiting incumbent politicians from using their office and its privileges for re-election purposes. They can, in principle, be sanctioned for "abuse of office" or other high misdemeanors.

But abuses take place nonetheless. Few, if any, politicians have been prosecuted for election-related abuse of office over the past quarter-century. But revelations of such infractions are common, and are increasingly frowned upon by the French public. Politicians, therefore, are far more wary of being found out now than they were 25 years ago.

Thus, in the current presidential campaign, the two leading candidates -- incumbent Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin -- take pains to separate their campaigns from their official duties. Jospin often elects to take trains while on the campaign trail, and even Chirac -- for whom security considerations are paramount -- kicked off his campaign last month in a much-publicized railroad trip that was intended to show him as "one of the people."

So when it comes to incumbents' privileges, practices and public attitudes have both become more stringent over the past few decades. They have not, however, changed much when it comes to politicians offering perks to journalists who are seen as supporting their election bid -- and the journalists and their bosses accepting them.

In this area, the French and many other Latin EU countries see little wrong with favors for journalists that are frowned upon or totally rejected in the United States, Britain, and some Nordic countries. Indeed, this mentality is also a part of overall EU practice, as it is with the Council of Europe and the OSCE, which offer free trips with high officials to journalists.