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Panama Papers: The Hypocrisy of the Ruling Elites

The world is plagued by elites who ask citizens to tighten their belts while they go on with their lavish lifestyles.

Thousands protested in London on Saturday calling for British Prime Minister David Cameron to step down over the Panama Papers. (Photo: The Weekly Bull/flickr/cc)

The Panama Papers leak offer for the first time a clear understanding of how world elites engage in shady financial mechanisms to avoid paying taxes and thus contribute to the financing of their national welfare system and development efforts. 

More importantly, the colossal sums mentioned shed doubt on the way those sums were accrued in the first place and the probity of 140 senior officials - many of whom are heads of state - from 50 countries.

What can be considered as the "biggest leak in the history of data journalism" in the words of Edward Snowden, underscores the hypocrisy of many rulers who shamelessly opened offshore entities to protect personal assets while enforcing fiscal burdens on their populace.

From David Cameron - whose father managed during 30 years an offshore holding in Panama as he was leading the fight against a Greek bailout in Brussels - to the family members of seven African head of states.

From Mauricio Macri - elected president of Argentina three months ago on a political platform to fight corruption - to the rulers of some of the most authoritarian regimes in the Middle East and Asia.

All have demonstrated the same blatant cynicism while exempting themselves from the fiscal rules they imposed on their subjects or electorate.

Unfair propaganda? 

Most will deny any involvement and will claim instead to be the victim of an unfair propaganda from foreign forces to destabilise their country. However, it will be hard for Vladimir Putin to explain how his best friend, a musician, is at the centre of a billion-dollar offshore scheme.

Similarly, it will be tough for authorities in China to explain why the names of family members of at least eight current or former members of the Communist Party's elite Politburo Standing Committee - including Deng Jiagui, the brother-in-law of President Xi Jinping - can be found in the data leaked. Even if the state apparatus immediately tries to contain the spread of the information in both countries, the magnitude of the scandal will eventually force explanations.

The argument of a foreign plot is hard to defend. First because the Panama Papers implicates and exposes political rivals. If Putin is presented as having hidden his wealth, so is Ukraine's President Petro Porochenko, one of Putin’s most vocal opponents.

The leak implicates Bashar al-Assad through his cousin Rami Makhlouf at the same time as the rulers of several countries who pledged to bring him out of office.


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More importantly, the data analysis has been carried out simultaneously by 108 news agencies from 76 countries, all members of the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ) which has mainly been known until now for its work denouncing US lobbyists.

The main takeaway from the Panama Papers leak is the confirmation that regardless of geopolitical interest, nationality or political affiliation, our world is plagued by the corruption of our political and economic elites who regularly ask everyday citizens to tighten their belts while they use offshore companies to perpetuate their lavish lifestyle.

In this scenario, whistle blowers and the ICIJ are the only significant counter power shedding light on the abuse of dominant social casts.

In a global society that remains dominated by a flawed nation state system in which rulers can perpetuate the legality of offshore financial schemes, albeit morally contestable, the resistance can only be a transnational popular movement of empowered individual citizens.

Corrupt behaviour

The political future of senior officials and head of state whose corrupt behaviour has been revealed in the Panama Papers will vary significantly from one country to the next.

Putin will probably use these denunciations to his advantage, on the path to the upcoming presidential elections at the end of the year. His control over domestic media is such that he will portray himself as a rebellious scapegoat and his re-election remains very likely despite the developing economic recession.

On the other hand, reactions in more liberal democracies may jeopardise the political future of senior officials linked to tax evasion in Panama.

Hundreds of protesters in Iceland swarmed the capital Reykjavik calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson.

So far, David Cameron has declined to comment on the involvement of his father in these offshore schemes, but he will have to face heavy fire in Parliament and with media with a certain impact on the end of his time in office. 

Over the next couple of weeks, the Panama Papers will offer us a survey of the healthiness of domestic institutions in countries where elites have been compromised. From authoritarian regimes where the news will hardly be debated to vibrant democracies in which heads of state will be held accountable and might eventually have to step down.

Remi Piet

Remi Piet is assistant professor of public policy, diplomacy and international political economy at Qatar University.

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