Is public trust in our political leaders at an all-time low?
With American presidents being impeached and even appearing in court and the leader of the world’s biggest country shunned by much of the international community, the question is, arguably, more relevant than ever.
Of course, trust in our politicians and politics has known a few lows in the past. Cast your mind back a few decades to the Watergate scandal that brought down a president.
It could be that, with the non-stop 24/7 news cycle, there is just a lot more attention paid to the flaws and faults of public figures these days.
But, recently, there have certainly been a number of other high-profile perceived unethical leadership behaviour and practices which could impact further on the public’s trust in political leaders and government.
Take, for example, the unedifying Qatargate case that has embroiled the European Parliament in Brussels.
As the only directly elected EU institution, the Parliament rightly takes pride in espousing high standards of behaviour.
But that has taken a hit of late with the likes of Belgian MEP Marc Tarabella at the centre of an alleged corruption scandal.
Just a few days ago it emerged that the politician is to be moved from jail to house arrest after being detained for over two months pending trial. For now, the MEP, arrested in February and charged with corruption, will have to wear an electronic surveillance bracelet.
Former European Parliament Vice President Eva Kaili, another caught up in the probe at the institution, has just moved from jail to house arrest pending a trial.
This is all part of a major police investigation by Belgian police into an alleged “cash-for-influence” corruption, scheme dubbed Qatargate.
The probe revolves around allegations that foreign countries, including Qatar, worked to influence the European Parliament through cash payments and perks.
Both MEPs have strongly denied any wrongdoing.
Moving to another continent, the former Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro appeared at federal police headquarters on April 5 to testify in an investigation into jewellery and gifts given in 2021 to the then-president and Michelle, his wife, by the king of Saudi Arabia.
One of the jewellery items is said to be valued at 16.5 million reais ($3.26 million) and was seized by customs officials in the backpack of a government aide returning from Saudi Arabia. The former president has said he did nothing wrong in receiving the gifts, but the incident has somewhat tarnished his reputation as an anti-corruption leader.
A survey by the Kyiv-based Centre for New Europe has revealed that Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán is the fourth-least trusted leader by Ukrainians. Only Russian President Vladimir Putin, Belarussian President Alexander Lukashenko and Chinese President Xi Jinping received more negative votes. The most trusted leader was Polish President Andrzej Duda.
Some of the UK’s political leaders have not escaped potentially damaging headlines.
Scott Benton, for instance, was recently suspended as a Conservative MP after he was filmed allegedly offering to lobby ministers for a fake company in a newspaper sting.
A Times newspaper report said Benton was offered a paid advisory role by reporters posing as gambling industry investors.
He did not pursue the role and no rules appear to have been broken.
Separately, other senior UK MPs, including former cabinet ministers Matt Hancock and Kwasi Kwarteng, were filmed allegedly agreeing to work for a fake company for thousands of pounds a day. No rules, it must be stressed, were broken by the former ministers.
Most recently, the husband of Scotland’s former first minister Nicola Sturgeon was arrested in connection with an investigation into Scottish National Party finances.
Peter Murrell, 58, was questioned and taken into police custody while detectives mounted searches of his Glasgow home and the party’s headquarters in Edinburgh. He denies any wrong doing and was later released without charge pending further inquiries.
It is very important to stress these are all allegations, all of which are strongly denied by those involved.
But, even so, the question is: do such incidents adversely impact on citizens’ trust in politics,our political leaders and the public institutions they represent?
Such confidence is crucial as it helps to make democracy work and public trust can lead to greater compliance with a wide range of public policies.
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) carried out a cross-national survey of trust in government and public institutions, representing over 50,000 responses across 22 OECD countries.
The OECD survey found that 4 out of 10 of those surveyed do not trust their national government.
It says, “Trust nurtures political participation, strengthens social cohesion, and builds institutional legitimacy. In the longer term, trust is needed to help governments tackle long-term societal challenges such as climate change, ageing populations, and changing labour markets.”
So, how to restore the public’s trust in political leaders?
MEPs, in January, debated the Qatargate affair and expressed their continued “anger, shame, and shock” at the allegations of corruption, with speakers from a broad majority resenting that the actions of a few individuals are “casting a shadow on the House that represents all Europeans.”
They have quickly adopted a wide range of measures designed to combat such practices in the future.
Iratxe García,the Socialist group leader in the Parliament, says, “Most MEPs agree that boosting transparency and accountability can only happen openly, publicly, and by assuming responsibility where necessary, in order to regain public trust.”
The institution’s president Roberta Metsola concedes the well-publicised events have “led to a need to re-build trust with the European citizens we represent.”
The Italian MEP says, “We must acknowledge this. And citizens, rightly, demand accountability and integrity. We will do more to ensure that the public has clear information on our financial declarations and we will ensure more training on whistleblowing and compliance. We will boost measures to boost the fight against corruption and on how we can push back against foreign interference.”
Looking to the future, she declares, “We are totally determined to work with the rest of the groups to rebuild citizens’ trust and repair the damage done by a few to the credibility of the institution by criminal acts.”
The well-known former British MEP, Nigel Farage, is himself no stranger to unwanted headlines and he is pessimistic about current trends.
He told this site, “The western world is devoid of proper leadership and the Chinese communist party are filling the void.”
A big test of how the public feel towards their politicians may come next year with key polls all over the world, including a presidential election in the United States and EU-wide elections for the European Parliament.
It must be hoped that the lead being taken by the European Parliament to “clean things up” might at least trigger greater awareness among those in power of the need to restore public trust in politics.