Some Things Are More Important Than Corruption (Brazilian Elections Edition)

In the anticorruption community, it is fairly common to puzzle over—and bemoan—the fact that voters in many democracies seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt. “Why,” we often ask, “do voters often elect or re-elect corrupt politicians, despite the fact that voters claim to despise corruption?” One of the common answers that we give to this question (an answer supported by some empirical research) is that even though voters dislike corruption, they care more about other things, and are often willing to overlook serious allegations of impropriety if a candidate or party is attractive for other reasons. We often make this observation ruefully, sometimes accompanied with the explicit or implicit wish that voters would make anticorruption a higher priority when casting their votes.

We should be careful what we wish for. Continue reading

Will Brazilians Elect Their Own Donald Trump?

Will Brazil get its own Donald Trump? Brazil’s next election is right around the corner (the campaign starts August 16, and first round elections are October 2) but currently Jair Bolsonaro—a right wing, pro-gun rights, anti-gay firebrand who has proudly branded himself the “next Donald Trump”—is polling first among eligible candidates, trailing only former president Lula Inácio de Silva—who as of now is not actually allowed to run due to his conviction on corruption charges—and the “null option” (that is, none-of-the-above). What explains Bolsonaro’s appeal? In large part, the issue of corruption. Revelations of graft and bribery have continued to pile up in Brazil over the last few years—most notably (though not exclusively) in connection with the so-called Car Wash investigation of corruption in Brazil’s state-owned oil company, which may have involved upwards of $5 billion in stolen public funds. These corruption scandals have already led to the impeachment and removal of former President Dilma Rousseff, criminal charges against the current President Michel Temer, and the conviction and imprisonment of former President Lula. Given all this, it’s little wonder that in a recent poll, corruption was ranked as the most important issue for 62% of Brazilian citizens.

Much as Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp,” Bolsonaro has centered his campaign on the issue of corruption. He asserts that he is the only candidate in the election who has not engaged in some form of corruption or white collar crime. Of the five major presidential candidates, he’s the only one who is not either from a major party that has been mired in a recent corruption scandal, or been part of a coalition with one of those tainted parties. (Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL (Social Liberal Party) is small, barely present at the national level, and he is advertising his status as a political outsider as one of his appeals.) Thus Bolsonaro has presented himself as the only candidate who will usher in a new, less corrupt era for Brazil.

This places some Brazilian voters who care deeply about corruption in a difficult situation. Many Brazilians may feel like their only alternative to perpetuating a corrupt system is to take a gamble on a disruptive figure like Bolsonaro. Indeed, at a recent campaign event, supporters cited his aggressive anticorruption and anti-crime stances as the principal reasons why they were planning to vote for him. Diehard supporters aside, it’s possible that some Brazilian voters who are not totally comfortable with Bolsonaro might nevertheless be swayed by his outsider persona and his aggressive attacks on Brazil’s current political class. For those who have followed U.S. politics over the past few years, this probably sounds disturbingly familiar—and indeed seems to fit into a now-recognizable pattern, also manifested in the Philippines’ 2016 election of populist, zero-tolerance Duterte. It’s precisely that similarity that should, and I hope will, give these on-the-fence Brazilian voters pause. Continue reading

Is the West Being Too Critical of Corruption in Ukraine? The Debate Continues

A couple weeks back I posted a commentary on an interesting debate over the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption in Ukraine. On the one side, Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that assists international clients with government relations in Ukraine) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers) published a piece arguing that the West’s approach to promoting anticorruption was misguided, for two reasons: First, because (according to the authors) there was too much focus on punishing individual wrongdoers rather than on institutional reform, and second because the emphasis on the failings of the Ukrainian government (and the wrongdoing of individual Ukrainian officials) was undermining a reformist government, and would likely lead Ukrainian voters to embrace populist demagogues. On the other side, Daria Kaleniuk (the executive director of a Ukrainian civil society organization called the Anti-Corruption Action Center) countered that the only reason the Ukrainian government has made any progress on anticorruption reforms is because of pressure from the West, and that holding individual wrongdoers accountable is essential to making progress on this issue and restoring the faith of the Ukrainian people in the institutions of government.

My own take was that Ms. Kaleniuk is likely correct that individual accountability, though not sufficient, is a necessary component of an effective anticorruption strategy; Karatnycky and Motyl’s implicit argument that Ukraine could make headway on the corruption problem without an effective system for holding individual wrongdoers accountable, as long as the country pursues “institutional reforms” (like privatization and de-monopolization), struck me as both facially implausible and inconsistent with what we know about successful anticorruption reforms elsewhere. Karatnycky and Motyl’s second point, about “messaging,” struck me as harder. On the one hand, it’s true that emphasizing only problems and failures and shortcomings might breed cynicism, frustration, and possibly political instability. But on the other hand, exposing corruption may be the only way (or at least the most effective way) to mobilize public opinion to address some very real problems.

I probably wouldn’t have returned to this topic (about which, I can’t repeat enough, I lack genuine expertise), but Mr. Karatnycky and Professor Motyl published a rejoinder to Ms. Kaleniuk last week that I think merits further commentary. The new piece makes a number of separate points, and I won’t touch on all of them. But if I had to sum up their central argument, it would go like this:

Don’t be too critical of the ruling elites—even if those elites are pretty corrupt, and even if the only reason they’ve done much of anything about corruption in the past is because they’ve been pressured or shamed or coerced into doing so. If you’re too mean to them, they might lose the support of the people—and what comes next might be much worse.

That summary, which I admit is a bit of a caricature, might seem unfair. But I don’t think it is. Indeed, I not only think it’s an accurate distillation of Karatnycky and Motyl’s main argument, but I actually think that it’s an argument worth taking seriously, and in some circumstances might even be right. But I’m skeptical it’s right in most cases, and I remain to be convinced that it’s right about Ukraine. Under most conditions, I think it’s probably wrongheaded and dangerous to say that we shouldn’t criticize a government for failing to tackle corruption or try to expose the corruption of individual politicians out of a concern that doing so might undermine the legitimacy of the government.

So, before I proceed, let me make clear that my caricature—“Don’t say mean things about the kinda-corrupt-but-kinda-reformist incumbents”—really is a fair distillation of the argument. Here the key passages from Karatnycky and Motyl’s most recent piece: Continue reading

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.

Continue reading

Do People Care More About Corruption Than They Used To? Evidence from the US and Germany

Sometimes it feels like corruption has become the topic of the year: We’ve heard repeatedly that it is (the perception of) corrupt elites that has fueled the rise of populists, nationalists, and new socialist parties and politicians. The most prominently of these, though not the only one, is Donald Trump, who promised in his campaign to take back power from the corrupt elites (see here and here).

But has the topic of corruption actually become increasingly prominent in popular and media discourse over the last two years? To investigate this question, I did a simple search on the Factiva database within the eight most widely-circulated American newspapers (USA Today, the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Los Angeles Times, the New York Post, the Chicago Tribune, the Washington Post, and Newsday) for the term “corruption.” I did a similar search for Germany, using the term “Korruption” and the eight most widely-circulated German newspapers (BILD, BILD am Sonntag, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Die Zeit, Westdeutsche Allgemeine Zeitung, Rheinische Post, Welt am Sonntag and Rheinische Post). Surprisingly (at least to me), over the last two years there was no growth in U.S. newspaper reporting on corruption. As the following graph shows, reporting on corruption in the U.S. has been rather stable over this period, with between 500 and 750 articles a month. A slightly different picture emerges for Germany, where newspaper reports on corruption, which were substantially less frequent than in the U.S. to begin with, have actually declined over the past two years. (A side note, though perhaps an interesting one: The most reported corruption topic in both countries, with about 2.5 times more stories than the next-most-mentioned topic, was FIFA.): Continue reading

Why Did Trump’s Anticorruption Rhetoric Resonate? Three Hypotheses

OK, I know I said in last week’s post that I would eventually get back to blogging about topics other than Trump, but not yet. After all, Trump’s election—a political and moral crisis on so many dimensions—poses distinctive challenges for the anticorruption community, in at least two different (though related) respects. The first concerns the consequences of a Trump Administration for US anticorruption efforts, both at home and abroad, a topic I’ve already blogged about (see here and here). The second issue concerns the role that anticorruption sentiments and rhetoric played in Trump’s victory. After all, Trump positioned himself (ironically, outrageously) as an anticorruption candidate, denouncing Secretary Clinton as “crooked Hillary” and pledging to “drain the swamp” of Washington corruption.

It’s no surprise that the mainstream anticorruption community are perturbed, to put it mildly, by the effective deployment of anticorruption rhetoric by a racist xenophobic ultra-nationalist bully. While this is hardly a new phenomenon—see, for example, Katie King’s post on Hungary last year—the Trump victory has forced the anticorruption community to confront it head on. Indeed, at the International Anti-Corruption Conference (IACC) in Panama a couple of weeks back, the appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric by right-wing populists—especially though not exclusively Trump—was a constant subject of hallway conversation, even if relatively little of the IACC’s formal program dealt directly with this issue. (In fairness, many of the IACC speakers did find a way to raise some of these concerns in their presentations, and the organizers also managed to add a last-minute session, in which I was able to participate, discussing this topic.) What are we to make of this? What lessons should the anticorruption community—as well as others aghast at the success of Trump and other right-wing demagogues—take away from Trump’s successful appropriation of anticorruption rhetoric?

I wish I knew the answer to that question. I don’t, and won’t pretend to. But I do think it would be helpful to lay out what I view as the three main competing hypotheses: Continue reading