Holding politicians to account: asset declarations

Holding politicians to account: asset declarations

In early January the independent anti-corruption commission in Slovenia released a report critical of the prime minister and the leader of the opposition for hiding high value assets and for not listing potential conflicts of interests, including business deals with companies that have government contracts. The news sparked a public outcry with calls for their resignations and shone a spotlight on the role of asset declarations in preventing corruption in politics.

Images: Creative Commons, Flickr / World Economic Forum (Goodluck Jonathan) and Expectitiva Online (Cristina Kirchner)

Across the world most countries expect their top leaders to publish information about their assets. When they don’t, or if the figures don’t seem to add up as is happening in both Argentina and Nigeria, this can lead to both public unrest and political instability. In Nigeria civil society has been calling on the President Goodluck Jonathan to declare his assets since 2011. He declined to do so last summer, despite the fact that the Nigerian constitution explicitly calls for all public officials to declare their assets within three months of taking office. In Argentina, the extraordinary 1150 per cent increase in the personal wealth of president Cristina Fernández de Kirchner since 2003 has caused widespread comment because although she has declared her assets it is not clear where the increase came from.

Politicians and civil servants hold substantial power over the allocation of resources in their countries and the citizens who elect them, and who in effect pay their salaries through their tax contributions. The United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC), which has been ratified by 166 countries, requires a legal framework for asset declarations of government officials. Research shows that an asset declaration open to public scrutiny is a way for citizens to ensure leaders do not abuse their power for personal gain (our definition of corruption). Asset declarations are a means to anchor the issue of ethics and integrity in the political classes and should be part of all codes of conduct.

In Russia and Georgia, Transparency International chapters study the asset declarations of politicians and compare them over time to detect variances in income and financial interests. In Georgia, figures from the public database of asset declarations are used to research potential conflicts of interests, linking it to other publicly available data from the public registry of companies, for example.

Best Practice for Asset Declarations

There are no international standards mandating how asset declarations are made and monitored. However, there are core principles that should form the foundation of any legal framework.

For the public good

Around the world, there are many variations in what different countries require. The US approach to asset declarations is often considered a model because it is both comprehensive and transparent. Although there is no requirement to audit declarations in the United States, they are available to civil society on request.

In 2011, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reported that 86 per cent of OECD countries required top leaders to disclose private assets. It is noteworthy that the acceptance of gifts is prohibited in less than a quarter of these countries.

A well-defined asset declaration system is a strong tool to fight public sector corruption and abuse of power. Published information on a person’s assets allows civil society to hold leaders to account. If leaders are seen to live beyond their means, an asset declaration can be a starting point for investigations.

The situation in Slovenia

The recent scandal that put the spotlight on the assets of Janez Janša, the prime minister of Slovenia and Zoran Janković, the leader of the opposition, highlights a broader problem within Slovenian institutions. In 2011 Transparency International Slovenia participated in a Europe-wide programme to assess the strengths of institutions across the continent. Slovenian politicians scored badly when it came to an assessment of their integrity and the report recommended that the legal system be strengthened. Our report, Money, Politics, Power: Corruption risks in Europe, showed that only Slovenia and France among 27 European countries do not fully allow for public disclosure of assets.

Simona Habič, director of the League of Transparency International Integrity-Slovenia, Transparency International’s chapter in Slovenia, remarked:

Asset disclosure is an important tool to hold politicians accountable. The Slovenian legislation regarding asset disclosure has barely changed in the last 20 years. We detected deficiencies in the law and the limited powers that the anti-corruption commission (CPC) has to investigate these issues and have called for changes in the legislation.”

Both Janša and Janković are still in their jobs. For its part, Janša’s ruling SDS party has issued an open letter disputing the anti-corruption commission’s findings and dismissing the agency as a tool of the country’s former communist leaders. The commission has rebutted the SDS letter, citing it as an example of the disdain the country’s main political parties hold for the national institutions tasked with ensuring the rule of law.

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