How “Scandalizing” Corruption Can Backfire

High profile corruption scandals are making headlines almost every day: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is embroiled in multiple bribery allegations; Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known as Lula) was convicted for his involvement in corruption; Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was forced to resign after his allies were caught on tape buying political support to defeat his impeachment vote. The list could go on and on. And one cannot help noticing that the media coverage of these high-profile corruption cases often focuses on the most lurid, sensational aspects of individual politicians’ corrupt behavior. For example, as the Netanyahu probes unfolded, the Israeli media emphasized the juicy details: how Netanyahu and his wife were bribed with Cuban cigars and Dom Pérignon worth up to $130,000, the state’s annual allocation of approximately $3,000 for the PM’s pistachio ice cream supply, and his son’s bragging of how his father pushed through a gas deal caught on tape in a strip club. And this is but one example. It seems that corruption cases are often covered as if they were TV dramas, with entertaining plot twists and voyeuristic appeal. To put this in the terminology developed by Shanto Iyengar in his book on how TV news frames political issues, much of the contemporary media coverage of corruption tends to be “episodic” (focusing on individual stories or specific events, putting the issues in a more subjective light, and including sensational or provocative content) as opposed to “thematic” (more systematic, abstract, and in-depth, and providing a wider context for a more nuanced understanding of the causes and trends).

Such salacious coverage of corruption is perhaps unavoidable; these tawdry details attract more readers and viewers than dry reporting on financial misdeeds and back-room negotiations. And one might think that such coverage would be more effective in motivating citizens to take action against corruption—whether through votes, protests, organizing, or other means. After all, as Jimmy Chalk argued last year on this blog, anticorruption narratives can be more effective when they include dramatic stories with virtuous heroes and sinister villains. That may well be true for narratives fashioned by activists in the context of a campaign, but for news reporting, the episodic/scandal-centric approach may be counterproductive, for three main reasons:

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How Transparent Should Prosecutors Be About Investigations Into High-Level Corruption?

Today’s post is going to be one of those ones where I raise a question that I’ve been puzzling over, without having much to offer in the way of good answers.

Here’s the question: How open and transparent with the public should the officials investigating serious allegations of high-level corruption be about the progress of their investigations?

To be sure, no competent investigator or prosecutor would or should be completely transparent, as doing so might well tip off the targets of the investigation to what the investigators know, their investigative and legal strategies, and so forth. But even with that constraint, there’s a fairly broad range of options. Investigators could be absolutely tight-lipped about everything. Or they could hold regular press conferences covering significant developments in the case (and perhaps even going further to comment on the larger issues that the investigation implicates). Or something in between.

I was prompted to think more about this question in part by an exchange I had with Jose Ugaz at last month’s Harvard conference on Populist Plutocrats. I was asking Mr. Ugaz about his experience serving as Peru’s Ad Hoc State Attorney investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption in the Fujimori regime, and in particular how he dealt with concerns that his investigation might be perceived as politicized. Those who are interested can watch the video of our exchange (which starts around 7:15:55), but the key part of Mr. Ugaz’s response (slightly edited for clarity) ran as follows: 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

Good News in the Anticorruption War

I had planned to write a reply, and partial rebuttal, to last week’s posts by Matthew and Travis on ethics, corruption, and Donald Trump.  The more I tried to come up with something to say, however, the more depressed I grew.  Instead, as a tonic — for this writer and perhaps others born or living in Trumplandia — what follows is instead good news on the global anticorruption front –

Laos: Shedding Fancy Government Vehicles that Smack of Corruption.  A December decree orders all government officials to trade their government-bought Mercedes, BMWs, Lexus, and other high-end vehicles for more modest means of transport.  Prime Minister Thongloun Sisoulith and President Bounnhang Vorachit have both returned their BMW 7 Series and now drive Toyota Camry 2.5 cars instead. Other ministry and party officials must follow suit. (Details here.)

The Netherlands: Civil Society Attacks Money Launderers.  SMX Collective, a grassroots organization of Dutch and Mexican activists, academics, artists, journalists, curators and researchers concerned about the extreme impunity and violence suffered by Mexican people, has filed a complaint with the Dutch Public Prosecutor demanding the Dutch Bank Rabobank be charged with money laundering for its role in aiding Mexican drug cartels.  Vigorous pursuit of banks and other intermediaries for facilitating corrupt activities is urgently required, and Dutch civil society’s complaint is a welcome sign and an example others should copy.  For an English language summary of the complaint, click on “Continue Reading” at the bottom of the page.

France & Peru: Former Heads of State in Anticorruption Dock.  Prosecutors are pursuing charges against former French President Nicolas Sarkozy for campaign finance violations (NYT account here; Le Monde here) and former Peruvian President Alejandro Toledo for accepting a bribe (AP/NYT here; El Comercio here).  Neither case seems political.  Both have been brought by career law enforcement authorities who have no apparent ax, political or otherwise to grind.  The two may ultimately be found innocent by their nations’ courts, but the fact that high office in the two countries does not automatically carry with it immunity from prosecution for corruption crimes has to be considered very good news.

All three stories lifted my spirits.  I trust it will help other readers recognize that despite the fact President Trump is unlikely to fall over corruption claims (nicely explained by New Yorker writer James Surowieki here), the war against corruption is proceeding apace.

Summary in English of SMX complaint:  Continue reading

Corruption’s Gendered Double Standard

On November 8, 2016 the United States almost elected Hillary Clinton as its first female president. But, if Donald Trump and many of his supporters were to be believed, Secretary Clinton was also one of the most corrupt politicians of all time. This argument appears to have swayed many American voters, who ended up electing Donald Trump (who might actually be the most corrupt person recently elected to the presidency, see here, here, and here). That Trump’s unprecedented accusations of corruption were leveled against the first female presidential candidate nominated by a major political party was not a coincidence.

A great deal of commentary has considered whether women (and especially female politicians and public officials) behave less corruptly than men. (For some prior discussion on this blog, see here.) But I’d like to focus on a different question: Are female politicians accused of corruption treated differently—and judged more harshly—than male politicians? Existing research suggests that they are, which in turn may explain both why allegations of corruption can be more damaging to female politicians, and why female public officials are on the whole less corrupt. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading

Does Compulsory Voting Increase or Decrease Corruption? (Preliminary Thoughts)

As Courtney discussed in yesterday’s post, Peru’s presidential elections are scheduled for next month, and issues of corruption loom large in the public debate. The role of corruption in Peruvian politics is such a rich and complex topic, one about which I must confess I know very little. But one feature of the Peruvian election system, about which I was previously ignorant, caught my attention during conversations at a fascinating meeting in Lima last month (sponsored by the Peruvian Controller General’s Office): In Peru, voting is compulsory–there are penalties for failing to vote. Compulsory voting requirements, while not exactly common, are enforced in quite a few democracies, including (in addition to Peru) Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Cyprus, Ecuador, Liechtenstein, Luxembourg, Nauru, Singapore, and Uruguay. Some sub-national jurisdictions (such as the Indian state of Gujarat and the Swiss canton Schaffhausen) have compulsory voting, and there are also several countries that had compulsory voting at some point in their history, but have since abolished it (including, for example, Italy, the Netherlands, and Venezuela). In the United States, President Obama himself has suggested that the U.S. should consider some form of compulsory voting.

What does this have to do with corruption? Well, that’s actually the question I want to explore in this post. Although there’s a small political science literature on compulsory voting, there seems to be very little sustained discussion of the implications of compulsory voting for corruption control. (There is a bit, some of which I’ll mention below, but usually the mentions are brief and in passing.)

I’ll readily admit I don’t know much about this topic, but it seems to me an interesting question, and I can see a few arguments cutting both ways. So, without reaching any firm conclusions, let me first sketch out a few reasons why compulsory voting might reduce corruption, and then suggest a few reasons why compulsory voting might increase corruption. Continue reading