In Defense of Judicial Elections

Many critics, including on this blog, have argued for abolishing judicial elections, partly on the grounds that judicial elections open the door to judicial corruption. These critics worry that elected judges cannot apply the law neutrally because they will be influenced by those who got them to their position and by the desire to stay there. But these risks are both exaggerated and fairy easy to control. Judicial elections actually promote legitimacy and responsiveness, and reduce opportunities for political gamesmanship. Ultimately, judicial elections can help curb judicial corruption.

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Guest Post: Anticorruption Enforcement Is the Key to Democratic Consolidation–Not the Other Way Around

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? Continue reading

Can U.S. Efforts To Fight Vote Buying Offer Lessons for Others?

Vote buying—the practice of providing or promising cash, gifts, jobs, or other things of value to voters to induce them to support a candidate in an election—is illegal in 163 countries, yet it is a widespread and seemingly intractable problem in many parts of the developing world. In Ghana, for example, incumbents distribute outboard motors to fishermen and food to the rural electorate. In the Philippines, politicians distribute cash and plum short-term jobs. In 2015, Nigerian incumbents delivered bags of rice with images of the president ahead of the election. And Werner Herzog’s 2010 documentary film Happy People shows a politician cheerfully delivering dried goods along with musical entertainment to an utterly isolated village of trappers in Siberia (49 minutes into the film). Thus, recent instances of vote buying are more varied than the simple cash for vote exchange; they include awarding patronage jobs and purposefully targeting social spending as a reward for political support.

Vote buying not only distorts the outcomes of elections, but it also hurts the (usually poor) communities where this practice is rampant. It might be tempting to say that at least those who sell their votes receive something from their government, but in fact, once these citizens are bought off, their broader interests are left out of the government’s decision-making process, as the incentive to provide public goods to that group disappears. A study in the Philippines, for example, found that vote buying correlates with lower public investments in health and higher rates of malnourishment in children.

While some commentators occasionally (and condescendingly) suggest that vote buying is a product of non-Western political norms and expectations, this could not be further from the truth. Although wealthy democracies like the United States today experience very little crude vote buying, vote buying in the U.S. was once just as severe as anything we see today in the developing world. In fact, during George Washington’s first campaign for public office in 1758, he spent his entire campaign budget on alcohol in an effort to woo voters to the polls. By the 19th century, cash and food occasionally supplemented the booze, particularly in times of depression. Even as late as 1948, a future president won his senate campaign through vote buying and outright fraud.

Yet while U.S. politics today is certainly not corruption-free (see here, here, and here), it has managed to (mostly) solve the particular problem of vote buying. Does the relative success of certain U.S. efforts hold any lessons for younger democracies? One must always be cautious in drawing lessons from the historical experience of countries like the U.S. for modern postcolonial states, both because the contexts are quite different and because suggesting that other countries can learn from the U.S. experience can sometimes come off as patronizing. Nevertheless, certain aspects of the United States’ historical strategy to combat vote buying might be relevant to those countries struggling with the problem today. Let me highlight a few of them: Continue reading

Guest Post: What the McDonnell Opinion Portends for U.S. Anticorruption Law, and U.S. Politics

Jacob Eisler, Lecturer at Cambridge University, contributes the following guest post:

As Matthew observed in his blog post earlier this summer on the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision to vacate the conviction of former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell, there are two different ways one might interpret this decision. One could read McDonnell narrowly as a case that focuses on overly expansive jury instructions on the meaning of “official act” in the statutory definition of bribery. Alternatively, a more expansive reading would focus on language in the opinion that suggests the Court has a lenient attitude towards self-serving behavior by (high-ranking) public officials. As I argue at length in a forthcoming article, the broader—and for anticorruption activists more troubling—reading of the case is the right one, and the decision therefore has potentially extensive implications for American politics. Continue reading

Are Anticorruption and Prodemocracy Policies Antithetical?

That is the question Pennsylvania State University Political Scientists Vineeta Yadav and Bumba Mukherjee leave readers to ponder at the conclusion of their fine new book, The Politics of Corruption in Dictatorships.  But not before the authors provide a plethora of new insights on anticorruption policy and political change in authoritarian states.

They begin with the well-known finding that non-democratic states are more corrupt than democratic ones and continue with a review of the standard explanations for why this is so.  Authoritarian states lack a free press, separation of powers, and the other means democracies have for holding corruption in check.  Furthermore, corruption is many times the glue that holds a dictatorial government together.  It’s the way rulers buy the support of the security services, business elites, and others that might be tempted to overthrow them.  It also provides leaders an insurance policy in the event supporters don’t stay bought as they can siphon off a bit (okay often a lot) into a rainy day fund somewhere offshore.

If the story were that simple, an examination of non-democratic states’ scores on cross-national measures of corruption would reveal two things:  first, the scores would all cluster at the “most corrupt” end of the measures; second, absent the rare political upheaval, the scores would remain relatively stable over time.  Here is where the story gets interesting – and where Yadav and Mukherjee go to work. Continue reading

Electoral Systems and Corruption: Proportional Representation in Brazil

The Petrobras scandal currently engulfing Brazil is unprecedented in its scale and scope. Ironically, when the party of President Dilma Rousseff, the Workers’ Party (PT), initially became a major political player in 1989, it was seen as a clean, ethical alternative after President Collor de Mello stepped down from office amidst corruption allegations. Yet in the years following its rise to power, the PT has been dogged by corruption allegations, even before the explosion of the Petrobras investigations. During the presidency of Ms. Rousseff’s predecessor, Lula Inácio da Silva, prosecutors unearthed a major scheme, known as the Mensalão scandal, under which public funds were being used to pay members of Congress in exchange for their support of the PT government in crucial votes. At the end of the inquiry, 25 politicians and businessmen were convicted. Several other smaller corruption schemes (including Caixa Dois, Bingos, Sanguessugas, and Dossier) also implicated high-ranking members of the PT during Mr. da Silva’s tenure.

Despite this clear evidence of corruption within the PT ranks, the PT has been able to maintain its relative dominance in Brazilian politics, with three successive victories in presidential elections following Mr. da Silva’s initial rise to power, including Ms. Rousseff’s re-election in 2014, six months after the launch of the Petrobras investigations. This raises yet again a question that scholars and commentators have asked over and over again: Why do voters keep re-electing corrupt politicians? Democracy is supposed to enable voters to hold their government accountable, and most voters claim to dislike corruption and to value integrity in government. So why do parties like the PT keep winning elections? While there are many possible explanations (maybe, for example, voters don’t really care as much about corruption as they claim), part of the explanation in certain countries may have to do with the particularities of the electoral system.

Brazil has a hybrid electoral system: the President is elected in a two-round majority run-off system, elections for the Senate are based on plurality votes within states, and elections to the Chamber of Deputies are based on open-list proportional representation. An examination of this system suggests that it is particularly inimical to holding corrupt politicians accountable, and may have in fact contributed to the seemingly intractable problem of corruption in Brazilian politics. Three problems in particular stand out:

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The Petrobras Investigations and the Future of Brazil’s Democracy: Thailand and Italy as Cautionary Tales

In March of 2014, when Alberto Youssef, the initial whistleblower for the now infamous Petrobras scandal disclosed his knowledge of the scheme to his lawyers, he prefaced his revelations with a grim prediction: “Guys, if I speak, the republic is going to fall.” While that prediction may have seemed melodramatic at the time, the recent turmoil in Brazil surrounding the Petrobras scandal and the impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff have led some to begin to question whether Mr. Youssef’s prediction might in fact ring true.

The Petrobras scandal may be the single biggest corruption scheme in any democracy, ever. By some estimates, up to US$5.3 Billion changed hands through inflated construction contracts and kickbacks to Petrobras executives and politicians. Even for a country accustomed to political corruption scandals, this case is unique in its breadth and scope. Dozens of Brazil’s economic and political elite have been implicated, including the CEO of the country’s largest construction firm (sentenced to 19 years in jail), and the former treasurer of Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (sentenced to 15 years in jail), plummeting Brazil into a true political and economic crisis. The investigations transcend party lines: Eduardo Cunha, the speaker of the House leading the charge for President Rousseff’s impeachment (for using accounting tricks to mask the nation’s deficit), has himself been charged in connection with the Petrobras Scandal. Indeed, this scandal appears to be a political reckoning, an indictment of the entire elite class in Brazil.

By most accounts, Brazil is a thriving democracy—elections are free and fair, and there is a multi-party system marked by vigorous competition between rival parties. Civil liberties are generally well respected. Protests against the government have been massive, but by most accounts peaceful and undisturbed by state authorities. But some have gone so far as to speculate that the unprecedented scale of this scandal may lead to a collapse of Brazil’s democratic system. At least one historical example suggests that this might not be so far-fetched: In Thailand, the political deadlock in 2014 following the ouster of President Yingluck Shinawatra on allegations of corruption and abuse of power ended with a military coup, and democracy has yet to return. Yet perhaps another, somewhat less dramatic but nonetheless troubling precedent is even more apt: In Italy in the 1990s, the Mani Pulite (Clean Hands) campaign revealed endemic corruption and led to the collapse of the four governing political parties. In this case, while democratic elections continued, the political void left in the wake of Clean Hands was filled by new, corrupt actors like Silvio Berlusconi, and political graft remains rampant. Though Brazil seems unlikely to suffer a fate similar to Thailand, it is highly plausible that the aftermath of the Petrobras scandal might resemble the Italian experience.

Let’s consider some of the possible parallels between Brazil and Thailand, on the one hand, and Brazil and Italy, on the other.

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