Presidential Power Grab: Corruption and Democratic Backsliding in Mongolia

Mongolian democracy is in trouble. On March 26, President Khaltmaa Battulga proposed emergency legislation that would grant the presidency unprecedented powers to dismiss members of the judiciary, the prosecutor general, and the head of the state anticorruption agency (the Independent Authority Against Corruption, or IAAC). One day later, parliament approved this legislation by a vote of 34-6 (with 36 members of parliament either absent or abstaining), despite the fact that President Battulga hails from the Democratic Party (DP) while the rival Mongolian People’s Party (MPP) controls parliament. Technically the law doesn’t grant the dismissal powers directly to the president, but rather to a three-member National Security Council (NSC) composed of the president, prime minister, and speaker of parliament, and an oversight body called the Judicial General Council. But President Battulga dominates the NSC and personally appoints the members of the Judicial General Council, giving him effective authority to remove Mongolia’s judges and chief law enforcement officials at will. Sure enough, promptly after the law was passed, Battulga dismissed the head of the IAAC, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and the prosecutor general.

This new legislation, a crippling blow to Mongolian democracy, has its origins in corruption, and corruption is likely to be its effect. President Battulga induced parliament to grant him such extraordinary powers by claiming that he alone can really take on Mongolia’s severe corruption problem. In his statement to parliament introducing the new legislation, Battulga alleged that the country’s law enforcement leaders were “part of a conspiracy system” that “fabricat[ed] criminal cases with a political agenda” while covering up others. The president pointed to Mongolia’s numerous unresolved corruption scandals to argue that the institutions of justice were “serving the officials who nominated and appointed them” rather than the public, and he argued that reducing the independence of the judiciary, the prosecutorial apparatus, and the IAAC would make those institutions more responsive to the popular will to fight corruption.

President Battulga is correct when he asserts that Mongolia has a corruption problem of serious, perhaps epidemic, proportions. Mongolians regularly list corruption as one of the country’s biggest issues (second only to unemployment in a 2018 survey) and political institutions such as parliament and political parties as among the most corrupt entities. The past few years have been especially scandal-plagued. During the 2017 presidential campaign, all three candidates faced accusations of corruption; most egregiously, the MPP candidate—who, until January 2019, served as speaker of the Mongolian parliament—was caught on video discussing a plan to sell government offices in a $25 million bribery scheme. Further, late in 2018, journalists discovered that numerous politically-connected Mongolians, including somewhere from 23 to 49 of the 75 sitting members of parliament, had been treating a government program designed to provide funding for small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) as a personal piggy bank, taking out over a million dollars in low-cost loans. Beyond these scandals, Mongolia’s poor enforcement record compounds its corruption problem. For example, in 2015, only 7% of cases investigated by the IAAC resulted in convictions, and in 2018 public approval of the IAAC reached an all-time low.

But is there any reason to believe that President Battulga is right that giving him greater personal control over law enforcement and the judiciary will lead to less corruption? All the evidence points to no:

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Some Good News and Bad News About Transparency International’s Interpretation of its Latest Corruption Perceptions Index

In my post last week, I fired off a knee-jerk reaction to Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI). My message of that post was simple and straightforward: We shouldn’t attach much (or perhaps any) importance to short-term changes in any individual country or region’s CPI score, and the bad habit of journalists—and to some extent TI itself—of focusing on such changes is both misleading and counterproductive.

Since I was trying to get that post out quickly, so as to coincide with the release of the CPI, I published it before I’d had a chance to read carefully all of the material TI published along with the new CPI, and I promised that once I’d had a chance to look at those other materials, I would follow up if I had anything else to say. I’ve now had that chance, and I do have a few additional thoughts. The short version is that the way TI itself chose to present and discuss the implications of the 2018 CPI, in the accompanying materials, is both better and worse than I’d originally thought.

So, first, the bad news: Continue reading

Putting Elected Officials in Charge of Elections Is a Recipe for Corruption: Evidence from U.S. States

One of the stories that figured prominently in last November’s U.S. elections was that of Brian Kemp, then Georgia’s Secretary of State and now the state’s new Governor. As Secretary of State, Kemp was responsible for administering the state’s elections—but in 2018 he was administering the very election in which he was running for governor, which creates an inherent conflict of interest. Indeed, there was plenty of evidence that Kemp used his position as Secretary to increase his odds of winning the election: He attempted to close polling locations in neighborhoods likely to vote for his opponent, promulgated abnormally stringent voter registration rules that put thousands of voters’ eligibility into question, and launched what most observers considered to be a groundless investigation into his opponent’s campaign in the week before the election. Ultimately, after ignoring calls for him to recuse himself, Kemp announced that he would resign as Secretary of State two days after the election, while the votes were still being counted. Kemp was eventually declared the winner, though his opponent, Stacey Abrams, never fully conceded, vowing to sue Kemp for “gross mismanagement of the election.”

It’s hard to see how an election administrator’s use of his power to benefit his own political campaign is anything other than corrupt. Indeed, Kemp’s controversial election illustrates how the U.S. electoral process is particularly vulnerable to this sort of corruption. (And, it’s worth noting, while Kemp drew most of the attention, there were two other candidates in the 2018 elections that found themselves in the same position, with one choosing to recuse himself from the recount process back in August 2018 during a close primary.) In most U.S. states, the Secretary of State (who is responsible for administering the state’s elections) is an elected official, and in over half of the states, Secretaries of State can run for public office while serving as Secretaries. This is out of step with most of the developed world, where election administration is independent and apolitical. Reformers have called for changes to this system before, so far without much success. But the atmosphere may now be ripe for anticorruption advocates to propose referenda to create new, independent, and non-partisan systems for election administration. A well-designed system could eliminate the clear conflicts of interest raised by people like Brian Kemp, while also tackling the more insidious and less obvious forms of corruption that arise when party members use their power over election administration to ensure that their party stays in power.

What might such a system look like? Canada may provide a useful model, given its similarities to the U.S., particularly with respect to its federalist structure. In Canada, each province is responsible for administering its provincial elections, while the Canadian national government administers national elections. The Canadian election administration systems share a few key components that keep the electoral commissions independent and non-partisan, and that all U.S. states should adopt: Continue reading

Corruption Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

Last summer UCLA Professor Miriam Golden and I did a radio interview on political corruption for a program called The Scholars’ Circle, hosted by Maria Armoudian. I just learned that a recording of the program is available online, and I thought it might be of interest to some readers of this blog. The recording can be found here; the discussion about corruption begins at 17:16.

The relatively brief but wide-ranging discussion, skillfully moderated by Ms. Armoudian, touches on five major issues (issues that we’ve also covered on this blog):

  • How should we define corruption, and how can we try to measure it? (at 18:11-26:31 on the recording)
  • Possible factors that might contribute to the level of corruption, including economic development, governance systems (democracy v. autocracy), social norms, and culture (26:32-32:41)
  • Whether and how countries can make the transition from a state of endemic corruption to a state of manageable/limited corruption—as well as the risk of backsliding (32:52-47:32)
  • What will the impact of the Trump Administration be on corruption, and on norms of integrity and the rule of law, in the United States? (47:42-52:02)
  • What are some of the main remedies that can help make a system less corrupt? (52:03-56:34)

There’s obviously a limit to how deep one can go in a format like this, and the program is geared toward a non-specialist audience, but I hope some readers find the conversation useful in stimulating more thinking on the topics we covered. Thanks for listening!

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