Today’s guest post is from Professor Manuel Balan of the McGill University Political Science Department:
There seems to be a surge in corruption prosecutions of current or former presidents throughout in Latin America (see, for example, here, here, and here). In the last year we have seen sitting or former presidents prosecuted for corruption in Brazil, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and Panama. In Peru, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned from the presidency amid corruption probes, and the last three former presidents are either facing trial or serving time for corruption. Argentina may soon join this list as a result of the so-called “Notebook Scandal,” which has triggered a fast-moving investigation that has already snared 11 businessmen and one public official, and is getting closer to former President, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. (Argentina’s former vice-president Amado Boudou was also sentenced to almost six years in prison for corruption in a separate case.) Indeed, it now seems that Latin American presidents are almost certain to be prosecuted for corruption at some point after leaving office, if not before. My colleagues and I have documented the growing trend of prosecution of former chief executives in the region since democratization in the 1980s: Out of all presidents who started their terms in the 1980s, 30% were prosecuted for corruption. Of those that entered office in the 1990s, 52% were or are being currently prosecuted for corruption. In the group of presidents that began their terms in the 2000s, 61% underwent prosecution for corruption. And, remarkably, 10 out of the 11 presidents elected since 2010 who have finished their mandates either have been or are currently being prosecuted for corruption.
The explanation for this trend is not entirely clear. It’s probably not that Latin American presidents have become more corrupt. Some have suggested that the uptick in corruption prosecutions is a reaction, by the more conservative legal establishment, against Latin America’s “Left Turn.” But the trend towards increased prosecution is hardly limited to the region’s self-identified leftist leaders; in fact, left and non-left leaders are nearly equally likely to be prosecuted for corruption. Part of the explanation might have something to do with changes in prosecutorial and judicial institutions, media, or public expectations—the reasons are still unclear, and likely vary from country to country. Whatever the explanation, is this trend something to celebrate? Some observers say yes, arguing that the anticorruption wave sweeping Latin America is the result of Latin American citizens, fed up with corruption and taking to the streets in protest, putting pressure on institutions to investigate and punish corrupt politicians.
While I wish I could share this optimism, I think it’s likely misplaced.
- First, while the data does not seem to support the notion that these anticorruption prosecutions are mainly the backlash of the conservative establishment against Leftist leaders, it is nonetheless the case that prosecutions of former chief executives are most likely to take place when the executive is governed by an opposing political party or coalition. This is a worrisome indication that there may be strong political motivations behind many of these prosecutions, and raise concerns about the potential weaponization of judicial proceedings. (This is not necessarily to say that judges and prosecutors are themselves politicized, though they may be; instead these prosecutions may have been activated by political actors attempting to pursue politics by other means.) This is an ominous sign for the peaceful alternation of power that is a key element of any democracy. While in the past a media scandal would have been enough to hurt a politicians’ reputation, the (ab)use of this tool in the last decades has hindered the credibility of these media allegations, to the point that they increasingly become politics as usual and part of the background noise of everyday politics.
- Second, the optimistic view that the trends in Latin America signal that powerful, popular leaders can be felled by credible corruption allegations does not seem consistent with most of the cases. Rather, in most of the cases where a current sitting president has been removed and/or prosecuted for corruption, the president was already unpopular—or the economy was doing poorly. Corruption proceedings may further hurt the popularity of president, of course, but in most cases the presidents prosecuted for corruption were politically vulnerable even before prosecutions started.
- Third, though the optimistic view sees these anticorruption prosecutions as an outgrowth of popular mobilization and protest—and hence a manifestation of strengthened vertical accountability from leaders to citizens—in fact these prosecutions may signal increasing judicial power at the expense of citizens having a say. As Frances Hagopian has argued in the context of the Brazilian case, stronger horizontal accountability institutions (like courts and judges) are eroding vertical accountability. True, citizens have mobilized in response to corruption claims. But what these demonstrations really signal is the weakening of voter-party linkages and deficits in vertical accountability.
So, while the optimists look at the wave of prosecutions of current and former Latin American presidents and see a combination of citizen mobilization and independent prosecutorial and legal institutions taking down powerful leaders, a closer examination of the evidence suggests that what we’re really seeing, on the whole, is an alienated, angry citizenry, and judicial processes triggered by political opponents to take out leaders who already were (or were becoming) weak and unpopular. While only time will tell whether this wave of prosecutions will result in lower levels of corruption moving forward, the evidence so far regarding these prosecutions, their political underpinnings, and society’s potential desensitization to corruption allegations make me doubtful, if not outright pessimistic.