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.
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
Last Sunday, Nicaraguan president Daniel Ortega won his third term in office, alongside his running mate—who also happens to be his wife—Rosario Murillo. For months, critics have been calling out the Nicaraguan election as a classic example of a corrupt, rigged election. The voting system was entirely controlled by Ortega’s party. The husband-wife ticket ran unopposed, and not for lack of actual opposition within the country. Indeed, over the summer, the Ortega-influenced Supreme Court blocked an opposition candidate from running against the incumbent. Though there were protests within the country expressing disapproval of Ortega’s increasingly authoritarian regime, it is difficult to say how much opposition there was to the election because the reported number of votes cast was surely inflated by the Ortega administration.
This hardly came as a surprise, as this type of one-sided election is nothing new in Nicaragua. What might be more of a surprise is the apparent lack of outrage, or even concern, by the international community, particularly the Organization of American States (OAS), the regional body that is tasked with, among many other goals, promoting democracy in Latin America. In mid-October, the OAS published a press release that noted the OAS was going to enter into a “dialogue” with the government of Nicaragua concerning the country’s electoral process. There were no further details in the press release, and the “constructive exchange” between the organization and Ortega’s government did not seem to go anywhere. The press release didn’t even explicitly say that Nicaragua’s election was corrupt or undemocratic. The OAS did send election observers to Nicaragua, but OAS election observation missions these days are mostly a formality—the OAS sends observers to nearly every Latin American election, and these missions are notoriously ineffective, ranging from 20 to 100 observers and lasting only 20 days on average. In the case of Nicaragua’s election, the observers were present for just three days.
Even though the OAS has only limited power, it is nonetheless capable of delivering strong, symbolic messages in the face of corrupt, anti-democratic institutions. The OAS has a long history of issuing reports, especially those that highlight human rights abuses, and the OAS has condemned subversion of the democratic process in other countries, such as Venezuela. Even if purely symbolic, a pronouncement condemning the Nicaraguan election would demonstrate that the regional coalition denounces corrupt practices, and such symbolism could help support internal protestors or critics who might otherwise feel alone. Yet the OAS failed to do so, choosing instead to issue a half-hearted, ambiguous press release . Why?
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
If public opinion polls are any guide, corruption is one of the most important issues to U.S. voters. A 2012 Gallup survey by Gallup found that a full 87% of Americans deemed reducing corruption as either extremely important or very important—placing this issue second only to the economy/job creation, and ahead of the budget deficit, terrorism, and Social Security. More recent polls buttress these findings: A 2015 survey found that 58% of respondents were afraid or very afraid of corruption by government officials, the highest of any fear surveyed. This meant that corruption was a greater fear than large-scale disasters like terrorist attacks or economic collapse, as well personal events like identity theft, running out of money, or credit card fraud. Three-quarters of those surveyed in 2015 also believed that corruption was widespread in the government, a marked increase from 2007. And a 2016 survey found that 16% ranked corruption the single most important issue, which might sound low, but was the third highest issue in the polls.
Yet despite these poll numbers, U.S. politicians and parties do not seem to have made anticorruption a major policy priority; certainly this issue gets far less attention than terrorism and the budget deficit. True, U.S. politicians will sometimes attack their rivals as “corrupt,” a rhetorical tactic we have seen in the current election (see here and here). But although politicians use the term “corrupt” to malign their opponents, they do not seem to treat corruption as a genuine issue in need of fixing, and do not put forward an anticorruption policy agenda. Hillary Clinton has an extensive list of policy proposals on her campaign website, yet corruption and anticorruption are not mentioned. Although her website goes in depth about money in politics, it stops short of using the term “corruption” to describe this problem. Donald Trump did recently release a five-point ethics plan that used the term “corruption” once, but it is incredibly vague and appears to have been made out of desperation in the closing days of the campaign. In any event, his “Issues” page still does not mention corruption, nor do those of third-party candidates Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, or Evan McMullen.
What explains this disconnect? Huge numbers of Americans tell opinion pollsters that they believe that the government is corrupt and that this is one of the biggest problems facing the country. Yet political parties and politicians barely discuss “corruption” (except as invective) or lay out plans for solving it. This is a puzzle. Politicians, after all, have strong incentives to talk about the issues that voters care most about. Even if we doubt how seriously we should take politicians’ platforms and campaign rhetoric, one would think that it would make sense for politicians at least to pay lip service to the idea of fighting public corruption, if voters care so much about it. So why do we not see more focus on corruption and anticorruption in the platforms of U.S. presidential candidates?
Last week, the Philippines elected the highly controversial Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. Duterte, who has built up a reputation as a political outsider who will challenge the traditional elite, had been the front-runner for several months, and on May 9th swept his competition with nearly twice as many votes as his closest competitors. In a previous post, I described Duterte’s zero-tolerance approach toward fighting corruption. Unlike his predecessor, President Noynoy Aquino, who himself ran on an anticorruption platform, Duterte has advocated for policies based in discipline and violence. He has threatened to bring back the death penalty for the crime of plunder or even to kill violators himself. (Indeed, Duterte has already admitted to killing criminals in the past). Duterte and his supporters acknowledge that his approach disregards due process and rule of law, which they argue is necessary because of how widespread corruption has become in Philippine government.
Since my last post, Duterte’s notoriety has only grown. In mid-April, Duterte became the subject of international scrutiny when footage from a campaign rally was released that showed him joking about the gang rape of Australian missionary. The real tragedy, Duterte said, was that he had not gotten to the beautiful woman first. His remarks drew criticism from his opponents and the Australian ambassador, and some expressed concern that Duterte’s brazen attitude would threaten relationships with foreign nations. A recent sketch by John Oliver detailed these horrifying remarks, as well as Duterte’s homophobic and bizarre comments while officiating at a mass wedding, when he publicly offered himself as a gift to all of the brides present.
Remarkably, and to the shock of most other countries, Duterte succeeded despite scandal and protest, and in a couple months he will assume office as the next President of the Philippines. What does his victory reveal about the Philippines’ experience with corruption? In the wake of what I view as an extremely troubling electoral result, here are some initial thoughts:
In the past several months, Philippine Vice Presidential hopeful Senator Ferdinand “Bongbong” Marcos Jr. has faced a great deal of criticism for refusing to recognize and apologize for the acts of his father, Ferdinand Marcos, Sr., who, in addition to committing numerous human rights abuses against Philippine citizens during his 20-year reign as dictator, amassed an estimated $10 billion in ill-gotten wealth for himself and his cronies. Although some assets were seized after the People Power Revolution ended the Marcos regime, the Marcoses and their cronies held on to a great deal of ill-gotten wealth. (Indeed, when the new government was installed, it created an entire agency, the Presidential Commission on Good Government (PCGG), dedicated to recovering those assets.) In the eyes of many Filipinos, the Marcos name represents an era that saw billions stolen from the people, a fact illustrated by the PCGG’s recent decision to use a virtual exhibit of extravagant jewelry belonging to former first lady Imelda Marcos as an anticorruption campaign. Called the “Story of Extravagance,” it features a diamond tiara in platinum, a ruby tiara in silver, and numerous other jewels, along with descriptions of how the costs of each item could have been used to fund education, energy projects, and health initiatives.
The controversy over Bongbong’s refusal to apologize for this and other unsavory aspects of his father’s regime (including systematic human rights abuses) began last August, when the younger Marcos first asked what he should have to say sorry for, while highlighting the economic progress made during his father’s time in power. Since then, Bongbong has continued to insist that he has no need to apologize, even as criticism of his stance intensified in February, when the country celebrated the 30th anniversary of the People Power Revolution. The controversy has been further inflamed by revelations in the Panama Papers that Bongbong’s sister, Governor Imee Marcos, and her three sons were among those linked with offshore accounts. The Marcoses have so far issued no statement on the matter. In fact, not even a week after these revelations, Bongbong reiterated his stance that he has no reason to apologize for his family.
Others on this blog have discussed whether younger generations must take responsibility for the corrupt actions of their parents (see here for Courtney’s discussion of Peru’s Keiko Fujimori). In the case of Bongbong Marcos, and of the younger generation of Marcoses generally, the interesting and troubling reality is that their political careers will likely survive their outright refusal to acknowledge the corrupt acts of Ferdinand Marcos, Sr. This frustrating truth speaks volumes about the culture of impunity that plagues Philippine politics, and has troubling implications for the broader anticorruption fight.