Can corrupt leaders enact effective anticorruption reform? The brief answer seems to be yes: Leaders who are (perceived as) corrupt can initiate and support effective anticorruption reform efforts. For example, as this blog has previously discussed, President Peña-Nieto (who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and graft) supported constitutional anticorruption reforms in Mexico. Egypt’s current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has similarly launched various anticorruption campaigns, even while fending off numerous corruption allegations.
But why do corrupt leaders institute anticorruption reforms? While there’s no universal explanation, there appear to be at least three archetypes that might help anticorruption activists identify and push unlikely reformers: The Power Player, The Top-Down Director, and The Born-Again Reformer.
The Power Player
The most cynical explanation for why corrupt politicians institute anticorruption reforms is that these politicians want to use the reforms to weaken the opposition and buttress their own political power. “Cleaning house”—for example, through selectively enforced anticorruption crackdowns and purges of party membership—is a familiar political gambit. For example, in the Philippines, President Rodrigo Duterte has implemented a sweeping anticorruption platform widely viewed as a move to consolidate his power. And this is by no means a phenomenon limited to developing countries. Consider, for example, Andrew Cuomo, the Governor of New York State, who has been repeatedly linked to corruption allegations, but has used anticorruption reform as leverage in his political battles with the New York State legislature (which has a long history of corruption—see here and here).
Sometimes, anticorruption reform is just cover for a political power play and is not particularly effective: Governor Cuomo’s 2011 anticorruption legislation resulted more in the increase of the governor’s power than anything else. Similarly, the purportedly independent commission he established to investigate public corruption at all levels (see here and here) did not conduct the sweeping investigation the governor had promised. For Governor Cuomo, anticorruption reform was good PR (“Finally cleaning up Albany”) but more importantly, it was an effective stick that could be used to exert pressure on the legislature.
But sometimes, anticorruption reforms that are primarily intended to consolidate the leader’s power might nonetheless lead to genuine improvements. In China, for example, critics of President Xi Jinping’s lengthy anticorruption campaign have asserted that the principal aim of this campaign is to consolidate and centralize President Xi’s authority (see, for example, here and this). Yet Xi’s campaign might actually be making more progress on Chinese official corruption than any previous leader since the 1978 reform.
The Top-Down Director (or The Exceptionalist)
A more interesting, and perhaps the most sincere, type of anticorruption effort by a ”corrupt” leader has been the implementation of anticorruption reforms at lower levels of government. Rather than use anticorruption reform primarily as a means to expand power, these leaders implement policies that don’t really deal with high-level corruption, but nonetheless genuinely attempt to clean up local bureaucracies. A perfect example comes from Brazil, during the regime of President Luiz Inacio da Silva (known as Lula), who served as President from 2003-2011. Although Lula was repeatedly accused of corruption while he was President (and was recently indicted for a fifth time), he and his party championed anticorruption reforms at the municipal level, including participatory budgeting and greater accountability for federal disbursements, enforced by random audits of municipal governments (see here, for example). Similarly, President Rafael Correa of Ecuador (who has been repeatedly accused of corruption and indirectly linked through family member accounts exposed by the Panama Papers) pushed for the creation of the Ministry of Transparency and Social Control in the 2008 Constitution, and also issued a decree that created the National Secretary for Transparency, both to investigate and denounce corruption in the public sector. President Correa also successfully reformed a number of low-level bureaucratic agencies in order to reduce bribery in basic service delivery. Both Lula and Correa ran on campaigns promising to reduce corruption, but their administrations were widely perceived as quite corrupt. Nonetheless, they did push for meaningful anticorruption reforms—but they focused their reforms exclusively on lower-level citizen-facing agencies. These reforms materially reduced the day-to-day exposure to and perception of corruption for voters. Although these reforms may have also served political purposes (to superficially fulfill campaign promises while sparing senior leadership from investigation), they ultimately had a positive and meaningful impact.
The Born-Again Reformer
Born-Again Reformers are leaders who engaged in corruption or rose to power in a system that was profoundly corrupted and then “saw the light.” Their first-hand expertise in corruption and their conversion narrative can give them a unique level of credibility and political leverage when enacting anticorruption reforms. Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari stands out as a prime example of a corrupt politician turned anticorruption champion. When Buhari first became president in the early 1980s, he enacted some anticorruption reforms, but allegedly implemented them selectively with political aims in mind (much like a Power Player) and was also repeatedly accused of personal enrichment. Almost 20 years after being overthrown, Buhari was again elected to the presidency and quickly set out to reduce corruption by launching dozens of investigations that have led to several high profile arrests. Buhari’s anticorruption campaign has proved politically popular and his efforts have been remarkably successful (though there has been significant resistance by elites and clear institutional weaknesses to overcome).
The Role of Civil Society
Although there seem to be a variety of factors motivating corrupt politicians to enact reforms, civil society organizations perform a crucial role. For Born-Again Reformers, without the pressure exerted by voters and civil society organizations (who directly advocate for reforms and help create an environment where corruption has a negative branding impact), they would neither feel compelled to clean up their image or have the necessary support to implement their newfound anticorruption zeal. Similarly, although Top-Down Directors might not be willing to implement reforms at the highest levels of government, their anticorruption campaign promises can only be accomplished with the support of the press and vigilant civil society organizations ensuring that bureaucracies actually reduce low-level bribery. And although Power Players often don’t enact authentic corruption reforms, sometimes they do so incidentally, and civil society can harness these self-interested efforts and redirect them. Relying on self-interested political leaders to champion anticorruption reform is likely not the best strategy to drive an anticorruption agenda forwards, but rather, as this blog and others have noted, a vibrant press and a developed network of government watchdogs and advocacy organizations are the key ingredients that can potentially push any leader, no matter how corrupt, to implement reforms.