Debate: Should politicians be tried for the crisis?

Former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde (center) with his lawyer (left) on trial in Reykjavik, March 5, 2012.
Former Icelandic Prime Minister Geir Haarde (center) with his lawyer (left) on trial in Reykjavik, March 5, 2012.
6 March 2012 – El País (Madrid)

The trial of Iceland’s former Prime Minister opened on March 5. Geir Haarde is accused of having being unable to cope with the financial crisis that swept over the country in 2008. Should we follow this example in other countries? El País asked several experts and journalists.

Iceland’s former Prime Minister, Geir H. Haarde, has appeared before a special court accused of “gross negligence” in the country's financial disaster of 2008. The crisis caused three banks to collapse, payments of its foreign debt to be suspended, the currency to fall and unemployment to hit ten percent. Did European governments know what was coming before the crisis hit them? How much responsibility did the banks have? Do we need more robust judicial action against politicians and bankers?

Kattya Cascante, analyst with Fundación Alternativas, close to the Spanish Socialist Party.

To come up with a measure of political accountability, we have to analyse the efficacy of actions, but also analyse why some targets were chosen and not others. In a democracy, the government is obliged to – and the Parliament must – inspect the content of political decisions and have the information it needs. And that information, which is linked to transparency, builds trust in institutions and increases expectations from public institutions, is sorely absent from all political systems.

Jordi Vaquer, director of the Barcelona Centre for International Affairs (CIDOB)

Without doubt, and after being stripped of their immunity, those politicians who are guilty of illegality must be prosecuted. But political accountability should, above all, extend to the political machinery. This includes the elections, but parliaments too. In many countries, those parliaments are merely arenas for crude displays of competition among the parties – and within the parties themselves, which are showing themselves to be particularly inept at holding their leaders accountable, thanks to some supposed 'loyalty' that keeps them muzzled. Beware of idealising Iceland! Before the crisis the country was gripped by networks of patronage and collusion between regulators and banks at a level that was almost mafia-like, and the old system still refuses to collapse. Leaders who delayed political decisions in order to sell off stocks, for example, have escaped justice. Geir Haarde was negligent, of course, but his friend David Oddsson, Prime Minister for 20 years, later governor of the Central Bank and now the editor-in-chief of one of Iceland’s major newspapers, not only got off scot-free but is pressing for the investigation to be obstructed.

Gonzalo Fanjul, journalist with El País

We all experience much joy in seeing a politician have his day in court for how he handled the crisis, but I'm not sure that's the desirable method. Prison is for the corrupt and other pickpockets. The inept, the shameless and the stupid should be punished at the polls. That said, I think it is very important to find out the reasons that led (and are leading) the political leaders to take one direction and not another. To which vested interests are they vulnerable? Who has access to them and their law-making, and who does not? In some cases, the criminal culpabilities cannot simply be tossed out. In the meantime, I would be content with an apology, or at least an expression of doubt. For example, from those who were once running financial institutions that are being rightfully blamed and who are now holding down jobs in economic ministries. It is a first step, but we still need to start walking in the right direction.

Ana García Femenía, public policy evaluation and planning consultant at the Complutense University of Madrid

Hopefully what is happening in Iceland is the beginning of a necessary turn-about in how politics are seen by politicians and citizens. We’ve probably come to this because of the perpetual failure of politicians to take responsibility, and the public has grown weary with the system. That a politician has to be judged for the consequences of his or her management should make us reflect on the intermediate mechanisms of monitoring and evaluating the public policies themselves, on how decisions are made, on who assumes the responsibilities, on what tools can be used to analyse and realign policies once they are set in motion, etc...

Antonio Elorza, political analyst and professor of political sciences at the Complutense University of Madrid

Responsibility for the crisis, both in the upper levels of political and administrative management and for the decisions that brought on well-known disasters, must first be exposed to public light. And then, if a regulatory basis is in place for it, convicting those responsible would be a great contribution to democracy.

Juan Arias, El País correspondent in Brazil

I think the example of Geir Haarde, Iceland’s former Prime Minister, brought to trial for his alleged responsibility in the economic crisis in his country, should be followed and encouraged. It can’t be possible that in a crisis of this magnitude, which affects the lives of millions of people, there is no one responsible who can be held to account for their deeds. Even in the smallest of commercial companies, the director must answer for his failure and pay the price if negligence is proved. And I think that, even more than bankers and businessmen, the politicians are ultimately accountable for their lack of vigilance – or even worse, at times, for political complicity with the former. Those who hold great responsibility and are paid in one form or another for such responsibility also have a duty to respond to failures of management. That a crisis like the one we are living through should have no guilty parties is the biggest slap in the face to its victims. Will no one stand up and answer for it?

Translated from the Spanish by Anton Baer

Factual or translation error? Tell us.