Last December, a year-old political party formed by anticorruption activists came to power in India’s capital, after a startling debut performance in Delhi’s local assembly elections. Within days, the new government, led by a former tax man named Arvind Kejriwal, announced a series of anti-graft investigations. Only 49 days into its term, however, Kejriwal and his colleagues resigned, ostensibly because their minority government could not push through an anticorruption bill. The party now has its eyes set on India’s parliamentary elections, set to occur this May.
Much has been written about India’s mercurial Aam Aadmi (“Common Man”) Party (AAP): its origins, its dedicated volunteers, its transparent campaign finance procedures, its vague policies regarding anything but corruption, and its missteps (some of which Russel Stamets discusses in a useful recent post on the FCPA Blog). Despite this, there has been little discussion regarding AAP’s place as a single-issue party in India’s deeply fractured political landscape, and little attempt to draw lessons from the successes and failures of anticorruption parties in other parts of the world. Yet the experience of anticorruption parties in Central and Eastern Europe–as documented and analyzed by Andreas Bågenholm –offers both hope and important lessons to AAP and its supporters.
In a fascinating paper, Bågenholm assesses the electoral and policy accomplishments of eighteen anticorruption political parties across ten countries, from the Czech Republic to Estonia and Bulgaria, over the past two decades. The results should please AAP’s supporters: in general, the anticorruption parties studied have done well in elections; they have served as valuable junior coalition partners in national governments; and their influence in government coincides with improved national performance on anticorruption measures. This suggests that AAP may be able to advance its anticorruption agenda by forming a coalition with more established, mainstream parties in Indian elections. However, Bågenholm also makes two observations that should make Mr. Kejriwal and his colleagues wary.
First, of the ten parties studied that participated in more than one election, all but one dropped their anticorruption rhetoric during their second campaign. (This is in contrast to other European niche parties, like Green or radical right parties.) It is unclear why this happened–it may just be a coincidence, or a product of a changing political climate across the region. But it could also be that voters suffer from “anticorruption campaign fatigue”, especially with incumbent parties. Bågenholm wonders if an anticorruption strategy “can only be used successfully once and preferably by a new party.”
Second, Bågenholm observes that anticorruption parties do better if they begin in opposition rather than in government. This may be because it is easy to be an anticorruption watchdog in opposition, but considerably harder to focus exclusively on this issue when the party is expected to govern. AAP itself often found it difficult to run a government during its 49 days in power in Delhi.
Although there are clear differences between Indian and European politics, the AAP can draw lessons from Bågenholm’s observations. If Mr. Kejriwal wants to build a sustainable organization that lasts beyond India’s current electoral cycle, he should ensure that AAP offers a political vision beyond fighting corruption. AAP should also have a strategy for preserving its credibility when it finds itself in a position of power.
So far, the party appears to be well-positioned to handle these matters. AAP has convened numerous committees to offer policy recommendations for a national manifesto. The party also learned to stand its ground when it was in power in Delhi. AAP did not win a majority of seats in Delhi’s assembly elections: the party came to power with the outside support of the scandal-plagued Congress party. AAP made it clear that it would step down from power if the Congress blocked any part of its agenda. Barely a month into its term, the party pushed an anti-graft bill that Congress could not stomach. The bill did not pass, and AAP stepped down from power… just in time to begin campaigning for India’s May elections.