GAB is delighted to welcome Cristina Nicolescu-Waggonner, visiting professor of Political Science at Pomona College and Scripps College, Claremont, to contribute the following guest post, drawn from material in her new book, No Rule of Law, No Democracy:
It is fashionable to argue that the only way to root out systemic corruption is to establish a political system characterized by genuine democratic accountability and the rule of law. Unfortunately, corruption – specifically the conflicts of interest of political and judicial leaders – does not allow for this sort of development. True, there may be democracy, but in the presence of widespread corruption it will remain in a perpetual state of unconsolidated democracy, without true rule of law. And in such weak democracies, the electoral process stimulates rather than discourages corruption: Eager to win and short on cash, politicians make deals with businesses and misappropriate public funds to finance campaigns, a vicious cycle that starts political tenure with illicit means. Different from lobbying, this illegal activity puts the breaks on rule of law reform. Corrupt politicians, afraid of retribution, do not reform or establish enforcement mechanisms: supervisory commissions, integrity agencies, anticorruption institutions, genuinely independent courts, whistleblower protection, etc. This dilemma is exemplified by the Czech Republic, which does well on various international democracy and rule-of-law indexes, but in fact is a corruption hotbed, with politicians, members of the judiciary, and business people involved in a web of misappropriation of public funds—partly for personal enrichment, but more importantly for election and re-election. The same vicious cycle is prevalent in new democracies all over the world, from Brazil to Romania to South Korea to Mexico to Tunisia: Corruption negatively affects the process of democratization and stalls it before democracy can have a chance to fight corruption.
So, what can we do?
If we agree that the missing ingredient is enforcement – assuming there is good anticorruption legislation – that is where the solution should start. Creating enforcement means creating predictability of punishment. If consistent and non-partisan punishment of corrupt political and judicial elites takes place, this creates a momentum of fear and trust: fear from corrupt elites, and trust from civil society. If, one by one, corrupt “big fish” are eliminated from the pond, this creates predictability of punishment and raises the legitimacy of the system. Both the predictability of punishment and legitimacy in the democratic system are crucial elements of democratic rule of law. Also, fear of punishment may bring to power leaders that do not have conflicts of interest, ready to make reforms and establish enforcement mechanisms.
Anticorruption agencies, therefore, can make a difference. But not all of them. Toothless committees and commissions are not enough. Only truly independent, powerful, and well-funded agencies, equipped with prosecutorial powers and well-adapted to the circumatancs of the particular country, may tip the balance toward enforcement, trust, and later toward rule of law. The anticorruption agencies in Singapore and Hong Kong are classic examples. A more recent encouraging example is perhaps more surprising: Romania, long seen as a corruption “black hole” in Eastern Europe, has developed an integrity apparatus—including a National Integrity Agency and the National Anti-Corruption Directorate—that has made real strides in bringing corrupt elites to justice.
Of course, because the politicians with the power to establishing effective enforcement mechanisms may also be the target of these reforms, their self-interested cost-benefit analysis will often lead to superficial or lack of reforms. This conflict of interest is a crucial obstacle to the establishment of rule of law. Yet establishing a effective, powerful, independent anticorruption enforcement institutions is a more promising way forward than placing our hopes in electoral democracy.