Examining nepotism in Germany | Germany| News and in-depth reporting from Berlin and beyond | DW | 01.05.2013
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Examining nepotism in Germany

Members of the Bavarian state parliament have employed relatives on the government's dime. After a wave of criticism, two politicians have resigned. But how common is corruption and nepotism in Germany?

Three different Euro notes change hands. (Photo: Jette Fröhlich/FSU)

Symbolbild Schmiergeld

Until recently, Georg Schmid was head of the Bavarian Christian Social Union (CSU) parliamentary group in the Bavarian state parliament. Last Thursday (26.04.2013) he stepped down from his office because of his wife's extremely well-paid job. He had employed her as a secretary for the very generous salary of up to 5,500 euros ($7,165) a month.

Since 2000, Bavarian representatives have been prohibited by law from employing spouses or children. But Schmid made use of an exception for old cases: contracts that were signed before the law came into effect may be continued indefinitely. Seventeen of the 92 CSU representatives in the Bavarian parliament made use of this exception. Now, most of them have fired their relatives.

Portrait of Georg Schmid with his head in his hand. (Photo: Andreas Gebert/dpa)

CSU politician Georg Schmid stepped down over his wife's employment

The CSU, the Bavarian sister party to Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats, is the majority party in the state parliament.

On Monday (29.04.2013), a second CSU member of the state parliament stepped down from his office. Georg Winter, head of the budget committee, had employed his sons for IT work. The two boys were only 13 and 14 years old when the contract was signed shortly before the law came into effect in 2000.

While both Schmid nor Winter resigned from their offices in parliament, neither of them resigned their seats.

Nepotism at its best

Hans Herbert von Arnim, an expert in constitutional law, set the whole thing in motion with a recent book: "The self-servers" ("Die Selbstbediener") showed, firstly, that Bavarian politicians earn more than their colleagues in other German states. But it also mentioned the fact that representatives in the Bavarian parliament were able to use the exception to the law to employ their relatives.

Christian Humborg, director of Transparency International (TI), which fights corruption worldwide, is surprised: "We didn't think that such a form of nepotism still existed in Germany." But he doesn't think that that there are many similar cases elsewhere in Germany.

Common, but hard to catch

Every year, Transparency International publishes a so-called Corruption Perceptions Index. Germany comes 13th out of 80 countries. In international terms, that's not bad, Humborg says. But compared to its European neighbors, Germany's only average. The statistics, however, are only based on estimates.

Overhead shot of the building Copyright: Bayerischer Landtag

The Bavarian state parliament building - until recently, a place of work for all the family

Corruption is hard to measure, according to sociology professor Ruth Linssen of the University for Social Research in Münster. The perpetrators are only rarely caught, and there's an extremely large number of cases which remain blow the radar. "It's assumed that only between 1 and 5 percent of corruption cases are discovered," Linssen says.

More transparency, stricter laws

Because individual corruption cases are hard to spot, Humborg calls for more public information on the measures that can prevent them. In Germany, one of those is the freedom of information law, which gives citizens the right to access official government files and thus keep the administration in check. It doesn't happen too often that just looking at the files reveals a corrupt politician, Humborg says, "but just the fact that citizens have the option changes political behavior and makes corruption harder."

There's a North-South divide in freedom of information in Germany. "Four of the five states which don't have such laws are in the south of Germany: Bavaria, Hessen, Baden-Württemberg and Saxony," Humborg says. Apparently, corrupt officials in the North have more reason to fear being caught.

Linssen also sees stricter laws as a way to fight corruption. Germany is still lacking in the area of laws to prevent politicians from profiting from their office, she says. "The UN convention against corruption has been signed by 140 states. Germany is not among them, because our laws against the bribery of political representatives are too lax." Despite this embarrassing state of affairs, the government coalition can't come to an agreement on how to tighten the laws, Linssen says. 

Clearer anti-corruption laws are also necessary in other fields. "It's completely legal for the pharmaceutical lobby to give money to doctors. Doctors can be paid for prescribing a certain drug more often," Linssen says. She also demands a stricter separation of business and politics. Lobbying is legal. But "when companies send their representatives to government departments to contribute to the writing of a law, it often happens that the pharmaceutical company tells the health department what to write." That is corruption as well, Linssen says.

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