The Link Between Corruption and the Global Surge of Populism

“Populism” has been defined in many different ways, but the context in which the term is most frequently used today aligns with the definition proposed by Cas Mudde in The Populist Zeitgeist: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite.’” This formulation certainly captures the political style of the leaders discussed at last month’s Harvard Law School conference on “Populist Plutocrats: Lessons from Around the World,” including Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Joseph Estrada in the Philippines, and (perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent) Alberto Fujimori in Peru and Jacob Zuma in South Africa. And it certainly captures the rhetoric of Donald Trump.

A couple of previous posts have provided an overview of the Populist Plutocrats conference agenda and information about the video recording (see here, here and here). In this post, I want to use the conference discussions as a jumping-off point for thinking more generally about how populism relates to systemic corruption—both as a consequence and as a cause.

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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

Ceiling Prices: A Second Best Method for Attacking Bid Rigging

The procurement laws of all countries provide that with a few, narrowly drawn exceptions public contracts are to be awarded on the basis competition.  As the drafters of the UN model procurement law explain, the reason is straightforward. A competitive procurement gives all those seeking the government’s business an equal chance to win the contract while at the same time maximizing the chance that government will receive quality goods, services, or civil works at the lowest price.

The problem comes when would-be suppliers do not compete for government’s business.  When instead of each one preparing its bid independently, based on what price the firm can charge and still make a reasonable profit, the bidders sit together and agree which one will “win” the contract and at what price, a price that can sometimes be twice what it would have been were there competition.

How can a government reap the benefits of competition when bidders have rigged the bid? The answer is that it cannot.  At least not immediately.  It can, as both the U.S. Department of Justice and the OECD recommend, institute procedures that make it harder for firms to collude, and it can, again as both these agencies regularly urge, vigorously enforce laws that outlaw bid rigging.  But these measures take time to have an effect; in the meantime, a government cannot halt all procurements.  It still needs to buy computers, desks, and other goods, to contract with cleaning, fumigation, and other service providers, and it must continue to build and repair roads, damns, and other civil works.

So in the face of collusion or cartel-like behavior by its suppliers, is government powerless in the short-run?  Must it accept whatever price the bid riggers offer? No matter how high it might be? 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

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

When Should We Put Anticorruption Agencies in the Constitution?

To fight corruption more effectively, many countries have created specialized government institutions that focus primarily on corruption issues. Most common are specialized anticorruption agencies (ACAs) with investigative and/or prosecutorial functions, although some countries have also created specialized anticorruption courts, special coordinating bodies, or other entities. This trend has generated a great deal of debate, both about whether to create such specialized bodies at all and about how they should be designed (for example, whether ACAs should combine prosecutorial and investigative power). Absent from much of this debate, however, is a discussion of the means countries should use to create these specialized bodies—in particular, whether these specialized anticorruption bodies should be enshrined in the nation’s constitution, or should be created by ordinary law.

Anticorruption bodies vary quite a bit on the extent to which they are constitutionalized. Most existing ACAs and other anticorruption institutions—including many considered highly successful—are not mandated by the constitution. For example, Indonesia’s anticorruption agency (the KPK) and its anticorruption courts (the Tipikor courts) were created by ordinary legislation, as was Belgium’s anticorruption investigation body and Spain’s anticorruption prosecutor’s office. However, in other countries specialized anticorruption bodies are explicitly established (or required) by the constitution. For example, the Philippines’ anticorruption court, the Sandiganbayan, is enshrined in that country’s 1987 constitution. Indeed, the trend (if one can be discerned) seems to be in the direction of constitutionalization. Tunisia’s new constitution, adopted in 2014, includes a specialized anticorruption investigation body. Egypt’s 2014 constitution similarly includes a specialized anticorruption prosecutor. Mexico’s 2015 amendments constitutionalized three types of anticorruption agencies (investigative, prosecutorial, and judicial), as well as a coordinating body.

But should these agencies be constitutionalized? And if so, when? Continue reading

New Case Studies on Specialized Anticorruption Courts in Indonesia, the Philippines, Slovakia, and Uganda

As is well-known, many countries around the world–especially developing and transition countries–have established specialized anticorruption institutions with prosecutorial and/or investigative functions. These agencies have attracted a great deal of attention and analysis (including on the blog–see, for example, here, here, here, and here). Many countries have gone further, and established specialized courts (or special divisions of existing courts) to focus exclusively or substantially on corruption cases. These specialized anticorruption courts have gotten relatively less attention, but as proposals for such courts have become increasingly prominent in many countries, there is a growing need for close analysis of these institutions.

To meet this need, the U4 Anticorruption Resource Centre has a new project, under the direction of Senior Advisor Sofie Arjon Schutte, on specialized anticorruption courts (a project in which I have been fortunate enough to participate). The first set of publications to result from this project are a series of short case studies on four of the existing special courts, in a diverse set of countries: Indonesia, the Philippines, Slovakia and Uganda. Readers who are interested in this topic might want to click on the links. Also, in addition to these four country briefs, there’s a longer U4 paper in the pipeline (coauthored by Sofie and myself) that discusses and compares a larger set of special courts around the world. I’ll do a post announcing that as well, as soon as it’s ready. And if anyone out there has information and insights about any special courts in other countries, please feel free to send it!