Photo: Weak checks and balances threaten anti-corruption efforts in Eastern Europe & Central Asia. Source: Transparency International. - Photo: 2019

Democracy Under Threat From Corruption

By Sean Buchanan

LONDON (IDN) – Amid a deterioration of trust in democracy, people around the world clearly disillusioned with formal political institutions are turning their anger into protest.

Besides being self-seeking, the political class is seen as riddled with corruption, leading to a situation where democratic progress has slowed to a near halt. Indeed, even some countries which had been demonstrating robust and open governance systems are now starting to backslide with democratic norms, while their institutions are under threat.

The Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) 2018 released in January 2019 by Transparency International – the global civil society organisation leading the fight against corruption – reveals that the continued failure of most countries to significantly control corruption is contributing to a crisis in democracy around the world.

It says that while there are exceptions, figures show that despite some progress, most countries are failing to make serious inroads against corruption.

No case is more significant than that of the United States which was downgraded on the CPI in 2016 from a full to a flawed democracy, as part of a gradual downward trend which started in 2008. The country’s decline in CPI score is a further red flag and comes at a time when the United States is experiencing threats to its system of checks and balances, as well as an erosion of ethical norms at the highest levels of power.

“If this trend continues,” says Transparency International, “it would indicate a serious corruption problem in a country that has taken a lead on the issue globally.”  

In 2017, Transparency International conducted a public opinion survey and found that nearly six in 10 Americans believed that the United States was more corrupt than the previous year, with the White House considered the country’s most corrupt institution. 

“Unfortunately,” said Transparency International, “corruption seems to be low on the priority list of the current administration. It wasn’t mentioned in this week’s [February 5, 2019] State of the Union address, except to criticise other governments or to characterise oversight attempts as ‘ridiculous partisan investigations’.”

CPI 2018 looks at how corruption has contributed to the current threat to democracy worldwide. While the reasons for this crisis are complex, it highlights that:

  • when corruption seeps into the democratic system, corrupt leaders may seek to prevent democratic checks and balances so that they can continue to remain in power unpunished
  • countries which recently transitioned to democratic governance often did not develop effective anti-corruption and integrity mechanisms, and now find themselves stuck in a cycle of high corruption and low performing democratic institutions
  • some populist leaders who have come to power by capitalising on public disgust with corruption, ironically now seek to undermine anti-corruption mechanisms and democratic institutions.

In order to not only fight corruption but also preserve and consolidate democratic institutions and norms, Transparency International calls for the strengthening of institutions that provide democratic checks and balances, bridging the gap between laws and their implementation, and supporting public accountability and press freedoms.

Democracy in crisis

Over the past two decades there has been democratic backsliding across the world. Both the Economist Intelligence Unit’s Democracy Index and Freedom House’s Freedom in the World indices register substantial net declines in the health of democracies worldwide.

Freedom House finds that since 2006, 113 countries have seen a net decline in their aggregate Freedom in the World score, whilst only 62 have experienced a net improvement. The EIU Democracy Index shows democracy stagnating in 2018 after three consecutive years of deterioration.

Of the more than 60 countries which transitioned from authoritarian rule to some form of democracy in the last quarter of the 20th century, half of them have seen their levels of democracy stagnate or even falter. Twenty one of them have not made significant progress in their quality of democracy, five have declined from a classification of “free” to “partly free” according to Freedom House, while a further five have slid-back to authoritarian rule and are now rated as “not free”.

How corruption can undermine democratic consolidation

In weak democracies, where corruption is rampant, top politicians who have enriched themselves illicitly have strong incentives to cling to power by any means, avoid prosecution and thereby continue to enrich themselves.

In order to stay in power, corrupt leaders may seek to weaken democratic checks on their power, for example by constraining political competition through electoral fraud as well as purging the civil service and weakening regulatory agencies.

They often bypass formal institutions which are meant to enable transparency in government spending and other decisions, while oversight agencies and the judiciary may be politicised or left weak. In some cases, state institutions are used as repressive mechanisms to ensure the continuation of the incumbent rule – going from the rule of law to the “rule by law”.

These actions undermine democratic consolidation processes, preventing further democratisation.

In Guatemala in 2018, comedian-turned-president, Jimmy Morales revoked an agreement with the United Nations underpinning the ability of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to operate. The CICIG is collecting evidence of corruption relating to Morales, his political party, his son and his brother.

The Guatemalan Constitutional Court blocked Morales’s decision, which then led to attempts to strip three constitutional court judges of their immunity from prosecution. Such attacks against the courts and judiciary, says Transparency International, enable corruption and impunity, and damage a fundamental pillar of democratic governance.

In Turkey, increased levels of corruption have also gone hand in hand with a decline in political and civil rights as well as attempts to weaken accountability institutions. Turkey’s CPI score dropped sharply from 50 to 41 in the period since 2013. In that same period, Turkey’s Freedom in the World score declined by almost half from a score of 61 to 32. This year, Turkey’s Freedom House rating fell from “partly free” to “not free”.

In the case of newly-democratised countries at the end of the 20th century, few introduced mechanisms aimed at preventing corruption after they transitioned from autocracies. In these countries, however, intense partisan competition often leads to higher rates of corruption as new political parties promise state jobs, contracts and other resources to their potential supporters. This may have contributed to how little progress has been made in these countries to improve the quality of their democracies.

Even in full democracies, with robust oversight institutions and observance of the rule of law, when corruption seeps into the higher levels of the political system, corrupt leaders often try to subvert those democratic institutions.

The populism paradox

2018 saw the election of a number of populist leaders or political parties in Italy, Mexico and Brazil. The year before, Donald Trump, another populist leader, was sworn in.

While there are many factors at play when it comes to the success of populist leaders, such as inequality, migration and fear of external security threats, popular discontent with political corruption is often used to mobilise public support.

Two years ago, when CPI 2016 was released, Transparency International argued that corruption and social exclusion lead to popular disenchantment with traditional institutions. Citizens feel the system is rigged and do not think the state is able to address their main socio-economic concerns. In turn, populist candidates appeal to citizens because they promise to break the vicious cycle of a corrupt elite enriching itself.

According to leading populism scholar, Jan-Werner Mueller, populist governance contains three main features: attempts to hijack established institutions, corruption and “mass clientelism”, and efforts to systematically suppress civil society.

By claiming to derive authority directly from the people, they attempt to subvert democratic institutions that limit their power. Populists often taint their political competitors as part of an immoral corrupt elite however, once in power they often turn out to be more corrupt than the “elites” that they displaced.

Examples range from Austria’s Freedom Party, the Italian Lega Nord, Turkey’s Erdogan, Hungary’s Orban, Venezuela’s Chavez, Guatemala’s Morales and not least the United States’ Trump. The new populist governments in Italy, Brazil and Mexico, are also worthy of attention. [IDN-InDepthNews – 09 February 2019]

Photo: Weak checks and balances threaten anti-corruption efforts in Eastern Europe & Central Asia. Source: Transparency International.

IDN is flagship agency of the International Press Syndicate. –

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