When and Why Do Corrupt Politicians Champion Corruption Reform? A Character Study

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.

16 thoughts on “When and Why Do Corrupt Politicians Champion Corruption Reform? A Character Study

  1. What about the fact that Governor Cuomo shut down the anti-corruption commission that he had himself created (The Moreland Commission — receiving more google hits than ever thanks to former USA Preet Bharara’s recent tweet!)? There might be something worth looking at with respect to politicians who launch anti-corruption efforts that are designed to be roads to nowhere but then if those efforts *do* dig up something that could be damning to the politician, s/he does an about-face on the issue.

  2. It has been my observation over the years that th politicians who make the most eloquent, brilliant and compelling speeches against corruption turn out to become the most corrupt.

  3. It would be useful to consider if there are more cases of “born-again reformers.” Insofar as Buhari is the one case cited, what is the evidence that he actually was corrupt when he was president the first time? Not clear.

    Plus, regarding Pena Nieto’s support for Mexico’s new Anticorruption System, his first move was to name as Attorney General a corporate lawyer from his own party who is also the first cousin of his personal lawyer… Under the anticorruption reform, the Attorney General now serves a term that extends into the next presidency, which in this case is likely to protect current corrupt officials from possible prosecution by the next government. See: https://justiceinmexico.org/questions-surround-pena-nietos-appointment-new-attorney-general/

    In other words, support for anticorruption legislation is not a strong indicator of actual commitment – perhaps we need a new term such as “accountability-washing,” to go along with “open-washing”

  4. Travis these are very good insights, particularly the important role of civil society, that help explain many anti-corruption campaigns and movements around the globe. But from my experience and observation one other important explanation you should consider exploring and writing about in a future blog relates to leaders who are just pure money hungry or those who are equally hungry for both money and power. Today, as opposed to just 25 years ago, almost all leaders have anti-corruption campaigns underway. And, as you note, because many of them have monopoly political power and because their justice system is endemically corrupt they can pick-and-choose exactly who they want to target. They and their elite networks have little to loose and much to gain from a well planned and controlled anti-corruption campaign. Indeed, these leaders and elite networks become richer and at the same time more powerful politically. China, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Russia are textbook cases worthy of closer scrutiny and analysis.

    PS. And I have to say that I don’t know anyone who considers Nigeria a remarkable success story. A cursory review of its history on the Anticorruption front also reveals its also mostly all about the money.

    • Keith, thank you for your comment. I agree that a remarkable number of leaders have used anticorruption campaigns to pay lip service to “reform” while selectively targeting the opposition, but I find it somewhat difficult to distinguish those who are seeking power from those who are seeking money as there is a circular relationship between the two. As my colleague Craig commented below, a money-seeking leader likely falls under the same archetype as the Power Player, though there may be some appreciable differences I am not seeing. As to your comment on Nigeria, I agree that Nigeria is not a success story by any means, but Buhari seems to have been somewhat more effective than previous leadership (though again, this may not be saying much).

  5. Another archetype (related to Keith’s comment) is the newly elected chief executive and party that seeks to dramatically discredit the previous administration and party. They spare no effort in investigating and condemning the previous government but never even think about investigating corruption in their own administration.
    The Ecuador case is interesting, but even more interesting is the case of prior President Lucio Edwin Gutiérrez Borbúa who campaigned almost exclusively on anti-corruption following and attempted coup against corruption, was elected by the voters to combat corruption and never lifted a finger to do anything about it, even failing to cooperate with anti-corruption initiatives and permitting the originally successful Anti-Corruption Commission to be corrupted and neutered while corruption permeated his own government.

    • Really insightful post Travis! And I agree with the previous two comments about another potential archetype- one that runs on a anticorruption campaign for election purposes without a real desire to institute any corruption reform. I’m curious what you believe society’s role is in dealing with such actors, if at all different than the archetypes you mention in your post.

      • I got the impression that the Power Player WAS this type of leader you describe. He doesn’t have a real desire to institute corruption reform. Rather, actual positive anticorruption results occur as a result of the steps initiated for ulterior motives, which is the illusion of “cleaning house” or undergoing reform.

  6. While I think generalities are somewhat difficult to draw, these archetypes are both interesting and also offer a fair bit of insight into a counter-intuitive world. I also think a fair bit more exploration of each would be revealing, as well as an exploration of whether the underlying type of corruption perpetrated or allegedly perpetrated by the individual leader relates to the type of subsequent anticorruption reform pursued.

    There may be more to the “Power Player” archetype in particular, perhaps in line with what a previous poster has said about economic motivation. To me it seems likely that a Power Player may be motivated by a desire to aggregate power, but there also might be similar actions (selective enforcement) to perpetuate cronyism and amass economic gain. For example, a leader might use anticorruption laws or enforcement power to stop a business owner’s competitors from being able to work effectively. I have written a bit about illegal logging; it would be easy enough for a leader to stop “corrupt” law enforcement from allowing and companies from doing illegal logging while allowing or even encouraging another company’s activities to go unchallenged. But isn’t that type of selective enforcement corruption itself?

    You also mention that the Power Player does not enact “authentic” reforms. I wondered what that might mean. Are reforms not authentic in the sense that the reforms themselves are nominal only, or that they are enacted selectively and used selectively, or that they are ill motivated? Even if so, could a wrongly motivated reform ever turn out to be used for good?

    • Great post Travis! Like Kaitlin, the use of “authentic” reforms also caught my eye. I believe you mean that they are selectively implemented? In which case they are also a useful tool for power consolidation (so, also ill motivated). I think the only case in which the Power Player’s anticorruption efforts could be turned against them would be when they fall from power.

      In the meantime, I think it’s conceivable that the Power Player’s anticorruption campaign might be accurately perceived as fraudulent by the population, potentially making them suspicious of, or even hostile to, future anticorruption campaign promises by other politicians.

      • Thank you both for your responses! Just to clarify my post, Mike is correct that by “authentic” I meant applied fairly/equally and designed so as to not benefit a particular set of economic or political interests who support the Power Player at the expense of those who do not. Whether that conduct might definitionally qualify as ‘corruption’ under the guise of reform, I still think this type of ‘corruption’ might offer activists/reformers a potential hook that other types of corruption doesn’t. At the very least, the blatant hypocrisy of using an anticorruption campaign as a tool to benefit friends and punish enemies might generate effective media criticism and foster public opposition.

        I think this gets to Kaitlin’s last question, which was the motivating question I had when writing this post: to what extent can reforms instituted by corrupt leaders still be useful to reformers? Perhaps Mike’s suggestion is the only real “good” that could come out of Power Player reforms, but I’d like to hope that once the laws are on the books and a few bad actors have been prosecuted (even if they were targeted for political/corrupt reasons) this might provide opportunities for international actors and civil society to push for more genuine long-term enforcement.

  7. Hi Travis, interesting article! I like the typology.

    I think an interesting thought experiment and extension of this article might be: why do non-corrupt leaders implement anticorruption reforms/how do they differ from these corrupt leaders? Of the aforementioned types, the born again is the only one that strikes me as particularly characteristic of corrupt leaders (I could also see leaders disgraced by other types of scandals doing something like this, though.) The first two types seem like strategies for anticorruption reforms that both good and bad leaders could do (neutralize opposition v. low-level reforms), but may have different motives for doing so.

    A cool extension may be thinking about the motives for either of these strategies: do (either corrupt or non-corrupt) leaders choose to be power players when the opposition is particularly strong and they need to neutralize threats, do they choose to be top-down directors when they need to prove credibility or professionalize the bureaucracy, and how does this factor into their larger strategy? Perhaps these are universal characteristics, regardless of “type” of the leader. Great read!

  8. I add here one more variant of anti-corruption reformers: Personally, the political leader presents a spartan image, in fact, he could even be squeaky clean but allows his followers and supporters to thrive on corruption. The anti-corruption game is being played at a different level.

  9. From my view point of anti-corruption movement and related basic research on ‘Corruption’, this article may be very pointing toward the origin of corruption in democracy and civilization.
    Dear Travis Edwards, you are appreciated most to focus one of the major human behavioral motive of corruption. We are basically the part and parcel of this civilization to digital world, which is very direct to diagnose corrupt-culprits. Again we are enjoying this development in better life-style, which is anyhow related with ‘corruption’.
    In democracy, politicians are the reformer of this civilization to do better of public interest. Then in a brief, only politicians are intellectual enough to use the popular ‘Anti-corruption’ slogan for vote-campaigning that we want most for democratic purpose. In economics and traditional global politics, it is very conventional that ‘money and power’ is the basic need to rule the citizen, which is the origin of corruption. And the leaders of traditional politics are as a whole corrupt without any discrepancy of convicted or not. In so called progressed democracy and media-politics, a convicted leaders rather enjoy better focusing and well popularity for voting crowd. The present, elections of India, Britain and United States shows that ideology is not a matter for vote, but religion, race and cast-isms are massive vote-pulling mechanisms. In corruption, conviction or non-conviction is hardly any different, specially when it is political democracy. Conventional political parties are running on money of ‘corrupt’ resource. Then leader’s honesticity should not be questioned. (https://www.researchgate.net/publication/290046023_Corruption_in_political_democracy_is_hard_to_control_with_law_only; https://www.researchgate.net/publication/285310989_CORRUPTION_IN_POLITICAL_DEMOCRACY_IS_HARD_TO_CONTROL_WITH_LAW_ONLY)
    The role of civil society is also most critical to answer, when the well-known corrupt governments and financial organizations are funding on anti-corruption activities, even in global chapter.

  10. Thanks for an interesting analysis and categorization – which, in essence, confirms the need for notoriously challenging holistic and comprehensive measures that include all levels of society while staying clear of handing over the sole responsibility and power to the hands of only a few in [national] government and law enforcement.

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