With the release of the Corruption Perceptions Index 2018, Transparency International looked at how corruption has contributed to the current threat to democracy. While the reasons for this crisis are complex, TI’s analysis 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 anticorruption and integrity mechanisms, and now find themselves stuck in a cycle of high 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.
TI’s findings suggest, as mentioned by Coralie Pring and Jon Vrushi in their piece (Tackling crisis of democracy, promoting rule of law and fighting corruption) that strengthening institutions that provide democratic checks and balances, bridging the gap between laws and their implementation, and supporting public accountability and press freedoms, are interventions that can contribute to not only fighting corruption but also to the preservation and consolidation of democratic institutions and norms. Over the past two decades TI has witnessed democratic backsliding across the world, including in what were promising new democracies such as Turkey, Hungary and Poland, and indeed in countries which were considered to be fully functioning democracies like the US.
In weak democracies, where corruption is rife, 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.
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. One saw this when a new president of the United States was elected with the intervention of a foreign power and by violating federal campaign finance laws, and who continues to stack up multiple instances of conflicts of interest. As these issues surfaced, President Trump moved quickly to undermine the independence and effectiveness of checks and balances, from firing the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI), to allegedly pushing the attorney general to resign, and attempting to undermine the free press.
A similar sequence of events can be seen in Italy, where former Prime Minister Berlusconi changed the laws several times to either shorten the statute of limitations or reduce sentences for the elderly. At least twice, his reforms were declared unconstitutional. He was charged with corruption and other crimes many times, but was acquitted in most cases because the statute of limitations ran out by the time the appeal reached court. By claiming to derive authority directly from the people, populist leaders 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, Guatemala’s Morales and not least the United States’ Trump. One should also closely watch the new populist governments in Italy, Brazil and Mexico. As identified in this analysis, both anti-corruption activists and democracy defenders share the same goals. TI has identified a number of key areas which are important for the fight against corruption and reversing the worrying trend of the global crisis of democracy:
1. Preserve and strengthen checks and balances. Political actors and institutions, and if necessary international actors, should have the right degree of independence, funding and resources to hold governments to account for their actions. Once compromised, well-functioning checks and balances are extremely difficult to rebuild.
2. Close the implementation gap between existing legal commitments and enforcement before making new commitments and drafting new laws. The last two decades have seen a proliferation of anti-corruption legislation at the national and international level. The United Nations Convention Against Corruption has been signed by 140 countries, and also the OECD Anti-Bribery Convention, as well as other regional conventions, including in Africa and Latin America. Those conventions have largely been harmonised into national legislations. Laws though are only as useful as the norms which facilitate their implementation. Transparency International has called for no more empty promises, but instead the implementation of existing laws and commitments. TI has reiterated at the G20 Summit, Open Government Partnership Summit, OECD Integrity Forum, International Anti-Corruption Conference etc.
3. Promote citizen engagement for sustainable accountability and decision-making. Civil society organisations should channel the momentum of increased political participation into initiatives aimed at empowering citizens to demand government accountability. In countries where the rule of law is weak or non-existent, any legal and technical fixes need to be preceded by a broad societal census in favour of integrity and clean institutions. Engagement of citizens in oversight of government decisions and spending, particularly at the local level, not only crowd-sources accountability but promises to re-invigorate the democratic process. Governments must create an enabling environment for civil society organisations to operate freely. Shrinking civic space is often subtler than physical violence against activists, such as excessive bureaucratic burden for NGOs or blocking funding streams. Engaging citizens in monitoring public works, participatory video-making and citizen journalism to counter land corruption in Africa.
4. Support freedom of the press. Governments, NGOs, private investors and international donors should ensure that media have the freedom and resources to perform their watchdog function. The Corruption Perceptions Index 2017 analysis made clear that promoting press freedoms and civil society space are directly linked to better anti-corruption and good governance results. A free and competent press is also one of the foundational pillars of well-functioning democracies. We have partnered with investigative journalists in a global anti-corruption consortium to turn their stories into campaigns, from Azerbaijan to Guatemala.
— The writer is veteran journalist and a former editor based in Islamabad.