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Argentina moves to stamp out nepotism

Nicolas Martin
February 1, 2018

Argentina's president plans to ban ministers from giving family members government jobs. Political scientist Claudia Zilla talks to DW about whether the move will curb corruption and what it means for the wider region.

Argentina President Mauricio Macri
Image: Imago/Agencia EFE

DW: Will Argentine President Mauricio Macri's executive order help fight corruption and achieve more transparency?

Claudia Zilla: From my point of view, the law has two sides to it. One is the fight against nepotism, i.e. favoring relatives when hiring government staff. The other is the reduction of government jobs, which increased considerably under the previous government. In this context, however, it must be noted that when Mauricio Macri came into power, he created many new positions in the executive branch. This is not unusual.

Why? It is much easier to quickly hire your own people than to dismiss people hired by the previous government. Macri supporters — academics with liberal ideas — were very disappointed by this move. They thought of him as an entrepreneur who knows how to work efficiently, yet has instead expanded the structure of the executive.

So is he just trying to reverse his own mistakes?

People now have a reason to dismiss employees or encourage them to resign. Ultimately, 10 people quit and you only re-hire five more — then you've saved five positions.

Quadriga 08.06.17 Zilla Claudia
Zilla is a political scientist at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs Image: DW

Have there already been reactions to the announcement in Argentina?

Yes. Apparently two sisters of Labor Minister Jorge Triaca have already submitted their resignations and his wife also plans to do this before the summer holidays. According to reports, the son of the minister of security and the father of the minister of the interior have also done the same.

How often are family members  employed by the government?

In Argentina, but also all over Latin America, civil servants and politicians often hire relatives and friends, or help them get jobs. But the new law in Argentina will only affect family members and not friends. You can prove who immediate family members are. But is hard to prove that you know someone or are paying back a favor. When they say that ministers cannot not hire relatives, it is only the tip of the iceberg. It is a step in the right direction, but it is only a small part of the big picture.

Friendships and networks also play an important role in Germany. What is the difference between Germany and Latin America?

When we compare Germany with Latin America, we are practically comparing two extremes — but also when comparing Germany and the United States. In Germany, there is a long tradition in state administrations. The upper level political positions are awarded without much competition. The highly institutionalized parties mostly want to benefit from government positions. Thus, personal ties are less important than in Latin America. But of course they also play a role.

Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner
Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was president of Argentina prior to Macri from 2007 to 2015Image: Reuters/M. Acosta

Corruption has played a major role throughout Latin America for decades. Do you see a general tendency towards change?

Yes and no. Corruption is a key issue in the media. It is a key issue in election campaigns and citizens have become more sensitized. Tolerance for corruption has diminished. It is a problem that people talk about now and governments have occasionally taken action. And courts are pursuing criminal prosecution more often.

What worries me is that this almost only affects people who are no longer in power. I find it suspicious, for example, that the justice system has not done anything about Kirchnerism, the policies of the Kirchner couple, for 12 years and that this is only happening now under Mauricio Macri. I am not saying that this should not be the case in general, or that this is political persecution. I just find it strange that the justice system is not constantly active and committed.

Will other Latin American countries follow suit?

Yes, but I think that a decision like this would have more legitimacy in the form of legislation. Secondly, I think that an executive order or the law alone isn't enough — not in Argentina and not in many other countries in the region. The government as a whole must become more professional and efficient. Professional administration and competent bureaucracy should be established and positions must be advertised properly and filled in a competitive process. The best people should have a chance and not just those with very influential relatives.

Claudia Zilla is an Argentine political scientist and head of the research division for the Americas at the German Institute for International and Security Affairs (SWP) in Berlin.