A Lesson in Democracy? The Bitter Irony of Malaysia’s Failed Anticorruption Coalition

The tools of democracy may combat tyranny, but they do not always combat corruption. That’s not to suggest that democratic values run counter to anticorruption efforts. Indeed, a free press and a competitive multi-party system remain powerful tools in ensuring corruption does not take root. However, once corruption has snaked its way throughout a government, democratic values and institutions may be too easily manipulated to fight corruption effectively. Perhaps no world leader illustrates this seeming paradox better than Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad, who served as Prime Minister twice. His long first tenure, from 1981 to 2003, earned him notoriety as a near-dictator whose autocratic regime contributed to a deeply-rooted culture of corruption and cronyism. During his short-lived second tenure from 2018 to 2020, Mahathir was heralded as a champion of democracy—but the liberal democratic pillars that he had suppressed during his first tenure, most notably genuine political competition and a free press, contributed to the failure of his anticorruption efforts and ultimately to the fall of his government. The bitter irony is that the suppression of both political competition and press freedom helped to create Malaysia’s entrenched corruption during Mahathir’s first tenure, while the flourishing of political competition and the free press contributed to the failure of Malaysia’s attempts to root out this entrenched corruption during his second tenure.

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Let Them Speak: Why Brazilian Courts Were Wrong to Bar Press Interviews with an Incarcerated Ex-President

In July 2017, Brazil’s former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”) was convicted on corruption and money laundering charges. His appeal was denied in January 2018, and he started serving his sentence in April 2018. Although Lula was in jail, his party (the Workers Party, or PT) attempted to nominate him as its candidate for the October 2018 presidential elections. But pursuant to Brazil’s Clean Records Act (which Lula himself signed into law when he was President), individuals whose convictions have been affirmed on appeal cannot run for elective offices. Though Lula and his defenders argued that he should be allowed to run anyway, his candidacy application was denied; ultimately, as most readers of this blog are likely aware, far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro defeated the PT’s alterative candidate, Fernando Haddad, in last October’s election.

Perhaps less well known, at least outside of Brazil, is the fact that in the run-up to the election, Lula received several invitations from the press to give interviews. Although there is no clear rule on whether prisoners are allowed to give interviews in Brazil, past practice has been to allow the press to reach out those in jail under the authorization of the prison management. After the prison denied several requests by media organizations to interview Lula, those media outlets turned to the courts, asking for the right to interview Lula. The courts said no. The Brazilian Supreme Court, in an order by Supreme Court Justice Luis Fux, issued a preliminary injunction blocking the interviews stating (in a free translation from Portuguese): Continue reading

More on the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, and the Relationship Between Media/Civil Society Freedom and Corruption

The rest of the anticorruption commentariat (and the mainstream media) may have already moved on from the publication of Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), but I wanted to follow up on my other posts from earlier this month (here and here) to discuss one other aspect of the new CPI. The general overview, press release, and other supporting materials that accompanied the latest CPI stress as their main theme the importance of a free press and a robust, independent civil society in the fight against corruption. As TI states succinctly in the overview page for the 2017 CPI, “[A]nalysis of the [CPI] results indicates that countries with the least protection for press and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also tend to have the worst rates of corruption.” And from this observation, TI argues that in order to make progress in the fight against corruption, governments should “do more to encourage free speech, independent media, political dissent and an open an engaged civil society,” and should “minimize regulations on media … and ensure that journalists can work without fear of repression or violence.” (TI also suggests that international donors should consider press freedom relevant to development aid or access to international organizations, a provocative suggestion that deserves fuller exploration elsewhere.)

Speaking in broad terms, I agree with TI’s position, and I’m heartened to see TI making an effort to use the publicity associated with the release of the CPI to push for concrete improvements on a particular area of importance, rather than simply stressing the bad effects of corruption (such as the alleged adverse impacts on inequality and poverty), or devoting undue attention to (statistically meaningless) movements in country scores from previous years. Whether TI succeeded in leveraging the CPI’s publicity into more attention to the freedom of the media and civil society is another story, but the effort is commendable.

That said, I spent a bit of time digging into the supporting research documents that TI provided on this issue, and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of finding the proffered evidentiary basis for the link between a free press/civil society and progress in the fight against corruption problematic, to put it mildly—even though my own reading of the larger academic literature on the topic makes me think the ultimate conclusion is likely correct, at least in broad terms. That latter fact, coupled with my recognition that the materials I’m evaluating are advocacy documents rather than academic research papers, makes me reluctant to criticize too harshly. Nonetheless, on the logic that it’s important to hold even our friends and allies accountable, and that in the long term promoting more careful and rigorous analysis will produce both more suitable policy prescriptions and better advocacy, I’m going to lay out my main difficulties with TI’s data analysis on the press freedom-corruption connection: Continue reading

Facebook Fever is Not Enough: The Role of Social Media in the Philippines

The Philippines, long mired in corruption, appears to have made progress on this front in recent years. While the current administration’s anticorruption efforts may have contributed to this progress, some commentators have suggested that social media might actually be playing a bigger role in the decline of graft in the country. Indeed, there are some dramatic examples of social media playing a role in the fight against corruption. For instance, as details of a major scheme involving misappropriation of public money began to surface in 2013, social media platforms exploded with photos and videos pulled from the Instagram and Facebook account of Jeane Napoles, whose mother, Janet, had orchestrated the scheme. Filipinos were shocked and appalled by all that ill-gotten wealth could buy—private planes, expensive handbags, multi-million dollar apartments, and even a new car detailed with an Hermes leather exterior (yes, exterior). Even after these accounts were taken down, photos of the Napoles’ lavish lifestyle continued to circulate. These images made people far more aggressive in condemning the actions of those involved, and even inspired the Million People March, when protestors called for complete elimination of the fund used in the scheme. More recently, Facebook posts about sightings of the younger Napoles helped the media to discover that Jeane, who fled the country in 2013, had in fact returned. She has since been charged with tax evasion.

This is encouraging, and no doubt social media platforms can be useful in the fight against corruption. Nonetheless, I’m cautious about overstating the long-term impact that social media might have on corruption in the Philippines. After all, the Philippines has had an active free press for decades, and past administrations have frequently been challenged by civilian participation and condemnation of corrupt practices. Can we really rely on social media to effect lasting change? Continue reading

Invalid Instrumental Variables in Corruption Research: A Lament

A while back, I posted a critical commentary on Paulo Mauro’s widely-cited paper purporting to show that corruption lowers foreign investment and growth. My criticisms focused on Mauro’s use of a statistical technique called “instrumental variables” (or “IV”) analysis, which — when done properly — can help figure out whether a hypothesized explanatory variable actually causes an outcome of interest, or whether instead the observed statistical correlation is due to the fact that the alleged outcome variable actually influences the proposed explanatory variable (“endogeneity” or “reverse causation”).  But an IV analysis requires making certain strong and untestable assumptions about the relationships between the variables.  If those assumptions are wrong, the conclusions one draws about causation will be unsound (not necessarily wrong, but not worthy of credence on the basis of the analysis).

This may seem like an issue that only stats nerds should care about, but I actually think it’s important that other researchers, activists, and policy advisers understand the basics of the technique and how it can go wrong (or be misused).  I say this because a surprisingly large amount of the research on the causes and consequences of corruption — research that is often cited, individually or collectively, in discussions of what to do about corruption — relies on this technique. And, I hate to say it, but much of that research uses IV analysis that is clearly inappropriate.

I’ve been thinking about this issue recently because I’ve been going through the literature on the relationship between democracy and corruption for a paper I’m writing, and this issue crops up a lot in that literature. But I’ve seen essentially the same problems in lots of other research on corruption’s causes and consequences, so I’m reasonably confident that this is not an isolated problem.

Let me say a bit more about the essence of the statistical problem, how IV analysis is supposed to solve it, and why much of the IV analysis I’ve seen (focusing on the democracy-corruption context) is not worthy of credence: Continue reading

Corruption in Turkey Poised to Worsen

A year ago, a spate of corruption allegations leveled at high-ranking officials in Turkey’s ruling Justice and Democracy Party (AKP) placed the country’s graft problem and political tumult squarely in the international spotlight. Prosecutors alleged misconduct involving over $100 billion by more than 90 top officials, including then-Prime Minister (now President) Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s son. AKP supporters believe the charges were politically motivated, pursued by supporters of Islamic cleric Fethullah Gulen in an effort to undercut the AKP. (Gulenists, whose marriage of convenience with the AKP dates back to the early 2000s, had secured key positions in the bureaucracy, police, and judiciary. But Erdogan’s growing power and disagreements over foreign policy strained the alliance, and tensions between the two grew.) In a swift response many believe was led by Erdogan, thousands of police were removed from the corruption probe. Prosecutors and judges were likewise dismissed, and the AKP-dominated Parliament passed a bill restructuring the Supreme Council of Judges and Prosecutors (HSYK) to give the political branches greater control over the judiciary.

Erdogan’s government put the nail in the corruption investigation’s coffin last month with a bill that bolsters executive police powers at the expense of the judiciary’s oversight function. In brief, the new law reduces the power of incumbent judges in two top courts through a restructure and proscribes broader search and seizure power to police. Both moves are designed to give the AKP the upper hand in future disputes with the judicial branch.

The erosion of judicial independence will make anticorruption prosecutions more difficult in the future. But Turkey’s problems run deeper. In short, these recent developments are merely an extension of a corrosive pattern of governance and weakening rule of law: (1) a steady expansion of executive power and (2) infringements on freedom of expression–developments that have been countered, if at all, by (3) an illiberal counterweight, in the form of the Gulen movement. Getting corruption in Turkey under control will require tackling each of these three underlying causes.

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