Guest Post: Berlusconi and Corruption, Stability and Change

Andrea Lorenzo Capussela, an independent researcher who worked on Kosovo and Moldova’s development, and has written on Kosovo and Italy’s political economy, contributes today’s guest post:

There has been some discussion on this blog, prompted by the discussion at last fall’s “Populist Plutocrats” conference, on how corrupt, wealthy politicians can successfully position themselves as populists. One of the leading examples of this seeming paradox is Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. In a recent post, Matthew Stephenson built on conference remarks from Giovanni Orsina and Beppe Severgnini to suggest that Berlusconi succeeded in part through a “politics of absolution”—the idea that by suggesting to Italian voters that “Italians are fine as they are, with all their vices, and need not change,” Berlusconi secured the support of many ordinary Italians who may themselves have bent or broken the rules, and who as a result of Berlusconi implicitly forgiving them, were willing to support him and to overlook Berlusconi’s own (much larger) infractions.

But as Professor Stephenson points out, there’s still a puzzle here: Voters consistently claim that they dislike corruption, and sometimes they are willing to take to the streets in protest. Indeed, during the two years that preceded Berlusconi’s electoral victory of March 1994, Italy saw frequent and large anticorruption demonstrations. Moreover, the particularism, clientelism, tax evasion, and corruption that Berlusconi both implicitly forgave and further entrenched are likely detrimental to the interests of a vast share of Berlusconi’s own electorate. So why did this message, and this so-called “politics of absolution,” work in the Italian case?

The missing piece of the story, as I argue in my recent book, has to do with the disruptive effect of the Italian anticorruption investigations of the early 1990s, and the fact that despite the success of that campaign in rooting out corruption, it ultimately destabilized Italian politics without offering Italian citizens sufficient reason to believe that the system would change for the better. Berlusconi offered the reassurance of a return to the old ways of doing things—and since most voters expected that such a return was likely, it became a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy. Continue reading

Petty Corruption, Grand Corruption, and the Politics of Absolution

My post last month offered some reflections on Professor Giovanni Orsina’s interesting observations, at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, about how the wide-ranging Clean Hands (mani pulite) investigations in Italy may have contributed to the rise of Silvio Berlusconi—first by creating a power vacuum, and second by contributing to the delegitimation of professional politicians and traditional political organizations. Today I want to pick up on another thread of Professor Orsina’s analysis, echoed and amplified by his co-panelist, the journalist Beppe Severgnini. Professor Orsina and Mr. Severgnini’s insight is that is that part of the secret to Berlusconi’s success – and the apparent willingness of many Italian voters to overlook his corruption and other misdeeds – is what for lack of better terminology I’ll call the “politics of absolution.” Here’s how Mr. Severgnini describes the phenomenon (see 57:34 on the video):

[A] populist plutocrat [like Berlusconi] is warm, empathetic, admits his sins – and forgives yours. It’s a very smart thing because he admits his huge sins, and he forgives your little sins…. [To] every shopkeeper who gave 50 Euros to the local policeman, … Berlusconi [said] “OK, don’t worry, this is not important.” … The smart thing, and the very subtle thing [is that by saying,] “I forgive you for those 50 Euros,” … in a way I buy your [acquittal of] me, [even though for me] it was 50 billion, not 50 Euro…. I forgive you the small things, so you forgive me for the big things – and maybe you vote for me. And that’s exactly the psychological trick, and it works extremely well.

Professor Orsina’s analysis is similar, emphasizing the contrast between Berlusconi’s forgiving, indulgent populism and what many voters perceived as the arrogant moralization of his chief opponents on the Italian left (at 45:20):

[The Italian left said to the voters,] “This is a corrupt country, this is a country that must be … corrected, … and we are those who can … teach the Italians how to behave.” Now, this was perceived as extremely arrogant…. On the other side, [Berlusconi] was saying, “Come on, guys! You are good! This is a great country…. I am in no position to tell you what to do…. What I want to do is to create the conditions for you to do what you want to do because what you want to do is good.” Of course there was no match…. Now, of course, when Berlusconi was telling the Italians, “You’re good, you can do whatever you want,” he was wrong. And when the left was telling the Italians, “We should behave better,” they were right…. [But] this [is] … why Berlusconi won the elections and the left lost.

I lack the expertise to assess, or even to intelligently discuss, whether this analysis of Italian politics is correct. But it strikes me as plausible, and moreover, if the diagnosis is accurate in this or other contexts, then understanding the politics of absolution may have at least two implications for efforts to combat corruption. Continue reading

The Promise and Perils of Cleaning House: Lessons from Italy

In countries beset by endemic corruption, efforts to expose and root out corrupt networks, and to punish the participants, can and should be celebrated. There are, of course, always legitimate concerns about the role that political power struggles may play in anticorruption crackdowns (think China and Saudi Arabia), an issue we’ve discussed on this blog before (see here and here), and that I may turn to again at some point. But in today’s post, I want to put those issues to one side to focus on something different. Suppose that some combination of government investigation, citizen reports, and media scrutiny exposes a major corruption network. Suppose that even though people always suspected that corruption was all too common, the investigation reveals that the rot runs much deeper, and goes much higher, than most people had imagined. Suppose further that, as a result of these revelations, law enforcement agencies take aggressive action, putting many people in jail and causing many others to lose their government positions. Again putting aside for the moment concerns about political bias, this is all to the good. But, what happens “the morning after,” as it were?

The hope, of course, is that by “cleaning house,” the state will be able to turn over a new leaf; the “vicious cycle” of self-perpetuating corruption may be broken, and those corrupt officials disgraced and removed from power will be replaced by a new generation of cleaner (though of course not perfect) leaders. Unfortunately, while that’s one possible scenario, it’s not the only one. In his presentation at last September’s Populist Plutocrats conference, the Italian political scientist Giovanni Orsina used the Italian “Clean Hands” (Mani Pulite) investigation into widespread political corruption, and the subsequent rise of Silvio Berlusconi, to illustrate how, under the wrong set of circumstances, a well-intentioned and widely-celebrated corruption cleanup could contribute to the rise of a populist—and deeply corrupt—demagogue.

I don’t know enough to have a firm opinion on the validity of Professor Orsina’s analysis, and I gather that other analysts have a different view of the long-term impact of Clean Hands, but his arguments strike me as plausible and sufficiently important that they’re worth considering, not only as potential explanations for developments in Italian politics, but perhaps more importantly for their potential applicability (mutatis mutandis) to other cases. In particular, Professor Orsina identifies two related but distinct mechanisms through which an aggressive and seemingly-effective anticorruption crackdown can contribute to the rise of a populist demagogue like Berlusconi. Continue reading

Upcoming Conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World” (Sept. 23, Harvard Law School)

On Saturday, September 23rd, Harvard Law School, in collaboration with the University of Chicago’s Stigler Center, will host a one-day conference entitled “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World.” The conference will focus on an important and dangerous phenomenon: political leaders who successfully exploit anti-elite sentiment in order to achieve power, but who, once in office, seem primarily interested in enriching themselves, along with a relatively small circle of family members and cronies. Many Americans might find that this description accurately captures President Trump, who campaigned as a populist, but who is governing as more as a “crony capitalist” plutocrat—or, some would allege, as a quasi-kleptocrat.

Americans seeking to understand the challenges our country is now facing might do well to look abroad. After all, while Trump’s leveraging of the power of the presidency for personal enrichment—enabled by anti-elite sentiment among his supporters—may well be unprecedented in modern U.S. history, it is not, alas, unprecedented in the modern world. Indeed, while every country’s experience is different, and we must always be careful not to overstate the parallels, many other democracies have had leaders who could be described as populist plutocrats, or even populist kleptocrats, in something like the Trump mold. While such resemblances have occasionally been noted (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), but there has not yet been much of a sustained attempt to understand populist plutocracy/kleptocracy and closely related phenomena in comparative perspective. The September 23 conference will seek to initiate more sustained exploration of these issues, and will also provide an opportunity for experts from other parts of the world–who have more experience with political leaders who combine populist rhetoric with self-interested profiteering and cronyism–to offer a distinct perspective on the challenges the United States is currently facing.

The conference will feature the following panels: Continue reading

Lava Jato and Mani Pulite: Will Brazil’s Corruption Investigation End Up a Wash?

Pop quiz:

Which corruption investigation was preceded by a massive outcry against corruption, was advanced by federal prosecutors making liberal use of the plea bargain, implicated hundreds of politicians (including former and current heads of state), raised serious questions about the role of the independent judiciary, and ultimately resulted in a dramatic political crisis that led to the replacement of a long-standing populist regime with a conservative government bent on reform?

If you guessed Brazil’s Lava Jato (English: Car Wash), you’d be correct.

But if you answered Italy’s Mani Pulite (English: Clean Hands), you’d also be right.

The similarities between the two anticorruption investigations and subsequent prosecutions are no coincidence. In 2004, Brazilian Judge Sérgio Moro, currently responsible for Lava Jato, penned an essay praising the Clean Hands operation, calling it “one of the most impressive judicial crusades against political and administrative corruption,” lamenting Brazil’s failure to engage in a crusade of similar import, and setting a roadmap for the country to do so, based largely on the perceived successful tactics of Italy’s Clean Hands.

Over the last three years, Brazil’s Car Wash operation has followed Moro’s roadmap. But, as Alberto Vannucci has pointed out, Clean Hands was far from an unqualified success—on the contrary, the headline-grabbing, establishment-shaking operation arguably left the country even more mired in corruption than before. Last year, GAB contributor Daniel Binette (channeling Vannucci) predicted that Brazil could face three major challenges in the wake of Car Wash: (1) a collapse of major political parties, (2) the remote possibility of a coup, as occurred in Thailand in 2014, and (3) a loss of public confidence in the anticorruption probe itself. Some of Binette’s predictions have proven prescient, while the accuracy of others remains to be seen.

Continue reading

Guest Post: Living in a Kleptocracy–What to Expect Under President Trump

Bonnie J. Palifka, Assistant Professor of Economics at Mexico’s Tecnológico de Monterrey (ITESM) contributes today’s guest post:

The news regarding President Donald Trump appointments and nominations, and the increase in foreign governments’ business at Trump properties, has caused considerable concern regarding possible conflicts of interest, nepotism, insider trading, and other types of grand corruption. Many are worried about what this means—if President Trump’s tendencies toward crony capitalism, or quasi-kleptocracy, are as serious as his critics fear, what can we expect will happen over the next four or eight years?

While grand corruption among the political elite may be new for US citizens, this challenge is all too familiar in many other parts of the world. As a long-time resident of Mexico and corruption scholar, I have some insight regarding life in a relatively corrupt environment, which might be relevant to what the US is about to face: Continue reading

London Anticorruption Summit–Country Commitment Scorecard, Part 1

Well, between the ICIJ release of the searchable Panama Papers/Offshore Leaks database, the impeachment of President Rousseff in Brazil, and the London Anticorruption Summit, last week was quite a busy week in the world of anticorruption. There’s far too much to write about, and I’ve barely had time to process it all, but let me try to start off by focusing a bit more on the London Summit. I know a lot of our readers have been following it closely (and many participated), but quickly: The Summit was an initiative by David Cameron’s government, which brought together leaders and senior government representatives from over 40 countries to discuss how to move forward in the fight against global corruption. Some had very high hopes for the Summit, others dismissed it as a feel-good political symbolism, and others were somewhere in between.

Prime Minister Cameron stirred things up a bit right before the Summit started by referring to two of the countries in attendance – Afghanistan and Nigeria – as “fantastically corrupt,” but the kerfuffle surrounding that alleged gaffe has already received more than its fair share of media attention, so I won’t say more about it here, except that it calls to mind the American political commentator Michael Kinsley’s old chestnut about how the definition of a “gaffe” is when a politician accidentally tells the truth.) I’m going to instead focus on the main documents coming out of the Summit: The joint Communique issued by the Summit participants, and the individual country statements. There’s already been a lot of early reaction to the Communique—some fairly upbeat, some quite critical (see, for example, here, here, here, and here). A lot of the Communique employs fairly general language, and a lot of it focuses on things like strengthening enforcement of existing laws, improving international cooperation and information exchange, supporting existing institutions and conventions, and exploring the creation of new mechanisms. All that is fine, and some of it might actually turn out to be consequential, but to my mind the most interesting parts of the Communique are those that explicitly announce that intention of the participating governments to take pro-transparency measures in four specific areas:

  1. Gathering more information on the true beneficial owners of companies (and possibly other legal entities, like trusts), perhaps through a central public registry—which might be available only to law enforcement, or which might be made available to the general public (see Communique paragraph 4).
  2. Increasing transparency in public contracting, including making public procurement open by default, and providing usable and timely open data on public contracting activities (see Communique paragraph 9). (There’s actually a bit of an ambiguity here. When the Communique calls for public procurement to be “open by default,” it could be referring to greater transparency, or it could be calling for the use of open bidding processes to increase competition. Given the surrounding context, it appears that the former meaning was intended. The thrust of the recommendation seems to be increasing procurement transparency rather than increasing procurement competition.)
  3. Increasing budget transparency through the strengthening of genuinely independent supreme audit institutions, and the publication of these institutions’ findings (see Communique paragraph 10).
  4. Strengthening protections for whistleblowers and doing more to ensure that credible whistleblower reports prompt follow-up action from law enforcement (see Communique paragraph 13).

Again, that’s far from all that’s included in the Communique. But these four action areas struck me as (a) consequential, and (b) among the parts of the Communique that called for relatively concrete new substantive action at the domestic level. So, I thought it might be a useful (if somewhat tedious) exercise to go through each of the 41 country statements to see what each of the Summit participants had to say in each of these four areas. This is certainly not a complete “report card,” despite the title of this post, but perhaps it might be a helpful start for others out there who are interested in doing an assessment of the extent of actual country commitments on some of the main action items laid out in the Communique. So, here goes: a country-by-country, topic-by-topic, quick-and-dirty summary of what the Summit participants declared or promised with respect to each of these issues. (Because this is so long, I’m going to break the post into two parts. Today I’ll give the info for Afghanistan–Malta, and Thursday’s post will give the info for Mexico–United States). Continue reading