How Can India Cleanse Its Politics of Dirty Money?

India’s 875 million voters make it the world’s largest democracy. Yet Indian elections, though generally seen as free and fair, have become the country’s “fountainhead of corruption.”Parties and candidates spend billions getting themselves elected—current forecasts predict $8.5 billion will be spent in the 2019 election, making it the most expensive election globally. Much of that money comes from illegal or at least questionable sources, a problem exacerbated by the fact that campaign financing in India is a black box, with no transparency into donors or income sources. Recent changes by the Modi government have made the process even more opaque. And much of the money raised is spent illegally. For example, up to 37% of Indian voters have received money for votes. 

The massive amount that politicians are willing to raise and spend to win elections is understandable when the payoff to the winning candidate is considered. Putting aside any ideological or egotistical motives for seeking public office, there’s also a material incentive: studies have found that, in the years following an election, winning candidates’ assets increase by 3-5% more than losing candidates’ assets, and this “winner’s premium” is even higher in more corrupt states and for winners holding ministerial positions. The material benefits of office may also partly explain the alarming percentage of Indian politicians with criminal histories. Currently, over a third of Members of Parliament (MPs) in the Lok Sabha (the Lower House of the National Parliament), are facing at least one serious criminal charge, and politicians with cases pending against them are statistically more likely to win elections. Moreover, the ever-greater spending on elections means that winners, in addition to lining their own pockets and saving for the next election, need to repay those who helped them prevail. The more money politicians spend on elections, the more they need to earn back or repay through political favors.

The high payoff to candidates who win elections (often because of the opportunities for corruption) both attracts dishonest individuals to seek office and encourages ever-higher election spending, which in turn inspires corrupt behavior to repay debts, whether through money or political favors. Therefore, any serious attempt to reduce corruption in India has to begin with electoral reform. The constitutional body tasked with administering elections in India is the Election Commission (EC). The EC oversees the election process, and it also can issue advisory opinions (though not binding decisions) regarding the post-election disqualification of sitting MPs and Members of State Legislative Assemblies (MLAs). The EC is also responsible for scrutinizing the election expense reports submitted by candidates. But the EC is in many ways a toothless tiger, able only to recommend actions and electoral reform to Parliament, without any real power to fix the electoral system. 

There are, nonetheless, a few things that the EC could do now, acting on its own, to help address at least some of these problems. But more comprehensive and effective reform will require action by the legislature or the Supreme Court.

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Fighting Corruption in Brazil Requires More Than Tough Talk—Does the New President Have the Necessary Skills?

Much has already been written, on this blog and elsewhere, about the what the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil means for the future of the anticorruption agenda in that country. (See, for example, here and here.) Bolsonaro’s appeal rested in part on the Brazilian electorate’s disgust with the entrenched corruption of the Brazilian political elite in all the major parties. Bolsonaro promised a rejection of “old politics,” positioning himself both as a “disruptive” figure and as someone who would and could “get tough” on corruption—a new sheriff in town, as it were, who would put the bad guys behind bars.

Yet fighting corruption is not just about “toughness” or making fiery speeches or enforcing laws (though strong enforcement is certainly necessary). In a country like Brazil—a complicated multiparty democracy desperately in need of significant institutional reform—an effective anticorruption agenda requires the President and his senior ministers not only, or even primarily, to be the merciless watchdogs cracking down on wrongdoing, but rather the country’s political leaders need to take the lead in articulating a coherent vision, mobilizing and coordinating with multiple stakeholders both in and out of government, and negotiating with other power centers in order to ensure not only the independence and cohesion of law enforcement efforts, but also to promote the necessary legal and institutional reforms. Promoting public integrity requires a broader set of skills, ones that have unfortunately become associated with “old politics” in a negative way: building coalitions, negotiating with different interest groups, and coordinating multiple stakeholders.

There are at least three sorts of coordination, engagement, and negotiation that Brazil’s new president must undertake if his purported commitment to fighting corruption is to yield results:

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Getting the Right People on the Global Magnitsky Sanctions List: A How-To Guide for Civil Society

Last December, pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, President Trump issued Executive Order 13818, which declared that “the prevalence and severity of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States … threaten the stability of international political and economic systems,” and authorized the Treasury Secretary to impose sanctions against (among other possible targets) a current or former government official “who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in: (1) corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery; or (2) the transfer or the facilitation of the transfer of the proceeds of corruption.” Pursuant to this Executive Order, the Treasury Department imposed powerful economic sanctions against 37 entities and 15 individuals, including Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, and Artem Chaika, the son of Russia’s Prosecutor General.

This was big news, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, Trump doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a “human rights guy,” let alone a Russia hawk. Given that the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (unlike its predecessor, the 2009 Magnitsky Act) enables but does not require the imposition of sanctions, it was far from inevitable that the Trump Administration would make use of it. Perhaps just as newsworthy was where the specific names on the list came from: nearly half of those names were provided to the Administration by civil society organizations (CSOs) or by Congress (and in the latter case, it was likely CSO efforts that brought individual names to the attention of Congressional staffers).

The Global Magnitsky Act and EO 13818, then, seem to create promising opportunities for anticorruption CSOs to impose consequences on kleptocrats and their cronies. Because the process is so new, it’s not yet clear how it will develop, yet it is nevertheless useful to draw lessons from the first round of Global Magnitsky sanctions for how CSOs can be maximally effective in using this new tool. The Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission) hosted a workshop in early March 2018 to discuss this issue. I was fortunate enough to attend this gathering, and in this post I’ve attempted to distill a handful of key lessons that the participants discussion identified. I’ve framed the lessons as a “how-to” guide addressed to members of a hypothetical anticorruption CSO: that would like to take advantage of this powerful tool.

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India’s Political Party Finance Reform Falls Short of Ensuring Complete Transparency—But Is Still a Step in the Right Direction

On March 1, 2018, India began its latest effort to clean up the financing of political parties and elections. This efforts involves the sale of so-called “electoral bonds” at select state banks across the country. The term “electoral bonds” is a misnomer, for these “bonds” are not linked to elections, nor do they involve paying back a loan or yielding interest. Rather, these instruments are simply a new means to facilitate financial donations to political parties, and are intended to displace the undocumented cash transfers that form the lifeblood of Indian politics. As India’s Finance Minister argued, this cash-based system causes two problems: First, “unclean money from unidentifiable sources” facilitates corruption and money laundering. Second, the reliance on cash allows parties to underreport both their budgets and spending. These concerns led the government last year to reduce the limit on anonymous cash donations from $300 to $30. Electoral bonds intend to further disrupt the system and achieve at least some increases in transparency of political spending.

Announcement of the new system has generated significant commentary, with the few admirers crowded out by the numerous detractors (see, for example, here, here, and here). The main focus of criticism is the new scheme’s guarantee of donor anonymity: Electoral bonds will carry no name and nobody, other than the bank and donor, can know who made the donation unless the donor willingly discloses her identity. The government has defended the anonymity guarantee as a way to prevent reprisals against donors, but critics understandably argue that the lack of transparency means that much political financing will continue to come from “unidentifiable sources,” allowing big business to keep lobbing money in exchange for policy favors while the public remains in the dark. (Moreover, the government’s emphasis on fear of reprisals as the rationale for anonymity suggests the government is unduly concerned with protecting the only class of donors for whom this would be a significant concern, namely large capitalists.) The electoral bond scheme has thus been painted as a move that potentially strengthens the crony capitalism responsible for India’s dire economic situation.

This strong negative reaction to the electoral bond scheme is, in my view, overwrought. True, the new policy does not solve the deep and serious problems with political finance in India. But it does have some notable advantages over status quo. Additionally, critics of the electoral bond system sometimes seem to treat donor transparency as an unalloyed good, when in fact donor transparency may have some drawbacks as well (even if one doesn’t take too seriously the government’s official line on political reprisals). Let me elaborate on each of these points: Continue reading

“Draining the Swamp” – How President Trump is making true on his promise

“Drain the swamp” was one of Donald Trump’s battle cries in the election. Many writers on this and many other blogs have expressed deep skepticism that Trump has any interest in fighting corruption, and assert to the contrary that Trump seems poised to preside over one of the most corrupt administrations in U.S. history. But that’s not how Trump’s core supporters see things. In their view, Trump is making good on his promise and weeding out the deeply connected interests of US government officials, businesses, media, and civil society—what they view as the “corruption” of U.S. institutions. While most readers of this blog probably find that perspective baffling, it is important for all of us to understand how this constituency thinks about the problem of “corruption” and interprets the reporting on President Trump’s administration in light of that perception.

When Trump’s core supporters think about “corruption” in the U.S.—when they think about the “swamp” that Trump promised to drain—they focus on an alleged cabal of elitist, neoconservative, and liberal interests that are fighting a “war against Trump,” the democratically elected President. The term that is increasingly used in these circles to describe the “swamp” is “Deep State.” The Deep State is, according to Breitbart news, “jargon for the semi-hidden army of bureaucrats, officials, retired officials, legislators, contractors and media people who support and defend established government policies.” (The Wikipedia article on Deep State was only published on Jan 7, 2016, showing the novelty and fast rise of this term). In this worldview, the Deep State was, for example, responsible for the dismissal of national security advisor Michael Flynn. Blame for the dismissal, on this account, lies not with the actions of Michael Flynn, but with the “traitors” in government, collaborating with the corrupt mainstream media (“MSM”)—a view shared by the President himself in a tweet on Feb 15, 2016: “The real scandal here is that classified information is illegally given out by “intelligence” like candy. Very un-American!” Indeed, the view that the MSM is a major colluder in the corruption that protects the powerful and wealthy is another important feature of the worldview that seems widely shared by Trump’s ardent supporters. The list of corrupt traitors to the American people who are part of this “Deep State” includes the Democratic Party, various Republicans who criticize Trump (such as Bill Kristol, John McCain, Lindsay Graham, and after the unsuccessful attempt to repeal Obamacare Paul Ryan), and the judiciary (see here and here).

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Appearances Can Be Revealing: The Trump Administration’s Corruption Perceptions Problem

In the wake of President Trump’s Executive Order “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States” (also known as the “Muslim Ban”), numerous media outlets published articles highlighting the fact that Trump’s order excluded several predominantly Muslim countries where the Trump organization conducts business (see here, here and here). The implication was that this exclusion was intentional, and demonstrates the extent to which Trump’s business ventures create conflicts of interest that influence his policy decisions. Although this explanation is plausible, another likely explanation is that the list of countries targeted by the ban tracked the visa waiver program restrictions Congress passed in 2015 and the Obama administration expanded in 2016 (see here).

Were the limitations on the ban driven by corruption or policy priorities? We don’t know—and that’s the problem. Even if Trump’s executive order had no connection with his business, Trump’s extensive conflicts of interest and unwillingness to divest from foreign holdings casts a shadow of corruption over any decision made by the administration. The fact that every decision Trump makes could be tainted with the appearance of self-interest, regardless of whether his administration actually is doing what it believes is in the public’s interest, is incredibly damaging, delegitimizing, and destabilizing. This is why we have ethics rules for government officials that seek to prevent not only corruption, but also the appearance of corruption. Trump’s failure to clear his presidency of any potential conflicts of interest has a few particularly pernicious effects:

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Are Better Principals the Answer to the Corruption Problem?

Those in the business of giving policy advice know the surest way to guarantee a policymaker ignores their counsel is to say the problem is “complicated” or “there are no easy solutions” and that the best way to see the advice is accepted is to cast it in the form of a simple, straightforward solution that fits easily onto a single power point slide. World Bank economists have learned this lesson well as their recent report on how developing countries can cure corruption and related governance ills demonstrates.  Making Politics Work for Development: Harnessing Transparency and Citizen Engagement manages to state the solution to the corruption problem in one sentence: Give citizens more information about politicians so they will know which ones to vote out and which ones to keep at the next election.

The authors are able boil the complex problems of corruption and bad governance down into such a neat solution thanks to application of principal-agent theory.  But in avoiding the “it’s complicated”/“no easy solution” Scylla have they veered into the Charybdis of oversimplification?

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