The Struggle for a Clean Parliament

Chesno activists spreading blacklists among the public Photo: Official webpage of ChesnoCorruption, deeply rooted in political and social structures, has long been undermining the development of many countries and regions of the world. Arguably, the most voluminous and damaging effects of this process take place at the highest legislative level. The Coalition for a Clean Parliament (CCP), initiated by the civil society of Romania, has become a self-protective tool that has been inspiring others to join the fight to root out the weeds of corruption.

In the wake of the 2004 parliamentary and presidential elections, Romanian civil society decided to create a black list of corrupt politicians and through public pressure force political parties to remove dubious candidates from the party lists. CCP united the Romanian Academic Society, the Pro Democracy Association, other civic organizations and hundreds of volunteers.

In order to distinguish between ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’ politicians’ specific criteria were developed. These criteria included the following: 1) repeated shifts from one political party to another in search of political profits; 2) published and verifiable accusations of corruption; 3) discrepancy between officially stated assets and incomes 4) participation in the former dictator Ceausescu’s secret service; 5) ownership of a private firm with important tax arrears to the state budget; and finally 6) turning a profit from conflicts of interest involving one’s public position.

The climax of the campaign was the distribution of the black lists among Romania’s population. By the end of the electoral campaign, of 202 candidates who were identified as unfit, 98 lost their seats either because the parties removed them from the party lists or because the voters simply did not vote for them.

While the direct effect of the CCP campaign on the Romanian political arena is very hard to measure, CCP became an unprecedented civic initiative that has won worldwide respect and numerous followers in other countries. In Ukraine the campaign has also inspired civic organizations to take matters into their own hands. Many Ukrainian civil rights organizations united under the name “Chesno” (Fair). They adopted garlic as a symbol for the purification of the Parliament during this October’s elections.

The criteria for purification have been developed with the help of public polls around the country and were slightly adjusted to reflect Ukrainian realities. Apart from the first three parameters used in Romania another three were added: participation in the sessions and committees of the Parliament (at least 75% attendance); self voting, and incidents of human rights violations. The results were shocking. Among the current 450 parliamentarians only 3 passed the test. 84% don’t live according to their stated incomes (their declarations far exceed monthly salaries or they refused to provide declarations). 93% of the parliamentarians do not vote personally, instead giving their voting cards to the party leaders or party colleagues who then vote for them. The profiles of candidates are slightly better in the Ukrainian regions where Chesno continues gathering information on the candidates who are running for the Parliament outside the party lists.

What can be learned from the ‘clean parliament’ campaigns in Romania and Ukraine? First of all, it is important to make public the finances and names of those involved in the campaign. This will limit accusations of favoring one political party over another and will generate public trust of the blacklists. Second, there should be room for criticism of the parameters of the campaigns. For example, there should be a distinction made between parliamentarians who skip sessions of the Parliament as a way to protest legislation that violates human rights or poses a threat to democracy and those who are busy working for the benefit of their own companies. Furthermore, future criteria should involve deep analysis of the political ideology of the candidates. However, this requires that more resources be donated by the public and not by those in the power.  Finally, the trust of the campaign increases when trusted elites are involved. For example, in Ukraine, it was regrettable that fewer respected intellectuals (writers, academics, former dissidents) took part in the campaign than in Romania.

Back in Ukraine, it is too early to analyze the results of the Chesno campaign. The final stage of the campaign, the distribution of information among Ukrainian regions, is still ongoing. As of today only few candidates have been removed from the party lists, especially from the list of the Vitaly Klichko’s oppositional party “Udar”. Elections will take place on the 28th of October. What is apparent, however, is the necessity to continue launching and improving ‘clean parliament’ campaigns not only in Romania and Ukraine, but around the world. The international community should support the efforts of local civil societies instead of getting involved only in the final stages (through foreign election observers) when it is already too late to make a difference.


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