When and Why Do Corrupt Politicians Champion Corruption Reform? A Character Study

Can corrupt leaders enact effective anticorruption reform? The brief answer seems to be yes: Leaders who are (perceived as) corrupt can initiate and support effective anticorruption reform efforts. For example, as this blog has previously discussed, President Peña-Nieto (who has repeatedly been accused of corruption and graft) supported constitutional anticorruption reforms in Mexico. Egypt’s current President, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, has similarly launched various anticorruption campaigns, even while fending off numerous corruption allegations.

But why do corrupt leaders institute anticorruption reforms? While there’s no universal explanation, there appear to be at least three archetypes that might help anticorruption activists identify and push unlikely reformers: The Power Player, The Top-Down Director, and The Born-Again Reformer. 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

What Does Rodrigo Duterte’s Victory Say About the Philippines’ Experience with Corruption?

Last week, the Philippines elected the highly controversial Davao City Mayor Rodrigo Duterte as President of the Philippines. Duterte, who has built up a reputation as a political outsider who will challenge the traditional elite, had been the front-runner for several months, and on May 9th swept his competition with nearly twice as many votes as his closest competitors. In a previous post, I described Duterte’s zero-tolerance approach toward fighting corruption. Unlike his predecessor, President Noynoy Aquino, who himself ran on an anticorruption platform, Duterte has advocated for policies based in discipline and violence. He has threatened to bring back the death penalty for the crime of plunder or even to kill violators himself. (Indeed, Duterte has already admitted to killing criminals in the past). Duterte and his supporters acknowledge that his approach disregards due process and rule of law, which they argue is necessary because of how widespread corruption has become in Philippine government.

Since my last post, Duterte’s notoriety has only grown. In mid-April, Duterte became the subject of international scrutiny when footage from a campaign rally was released that showed him joking about the gang rape of Australian missionary. The real tragedy, Duterte said, was that he had not gotten to the beautiful woman first. His remarks drew criticism from his opponents and the Australian ambassador, and some expressed concern that Duterte’s brazen attitude would threaten relationships with foreign nations. A recent sketch by John Oliver detailed these horrifying remarks, as well as Duterte’s homophobic and bizarre comments while officiating at a mass wedding, when he publicly offered himself as a gift to all of the brides present.

Remarkably, and to the shock of most other countries, Duterte succeeded despite scandal and protest, and in a couple months he will assume office as the next President of the Philippines. What does his victory reveal about the Philippines’ experience with corruption? In the wake of what I view as an extremely troubling electoral result, here are some initial thoughts:

 

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Violence Is Not the Answer: The Case Against Rodrigo Duterte

The life of Rodrigo Duterte, mayor of Davao City in the southern Philippines, reads more like that of a mob boss than a mayor. The National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) has investigated Duterte for his alleged links to a vigilante group called the Davao Death Squad (ties he later admitted), as well as threats made to kill village chiefs who did not support his government programs. He has expressed his support for extrajudicial killings as a means to fight corruption and crime. And in case you don’t think he’s serious, suspects have turned up dead after Duterte issued an ultimatum to all drug dealers to either leave his city within 48 hours or be killed. The man is rumored to have pushed a drug dealer out of a moving helicopter, and has openly stated that he would like to kill all criminals himself and throw them into Manila Bay. The most terrifying thing about him? He’s running for President, and he’s winning.

Duterte’s success can be explained by a number of factors, but one of the most troubling reasons for his popularity is that Filipinos have become so disillusioned by corruption in politics that they’ve become attracted to dangerous, zero tolerance policies. Duterte has stated that he would like to bring back the death penalty for the crime of plunder, and while he back-pedaled on his support for extrajudicial killings in the last presidential debate, Duterte still admits to having killed in the past, with a new ominous and unclear caveat: “It’s always bloody, but I never said extrajudicial.”

The popularity of these extreme policies reflects how frustrated citizens are with corruption in the Philippines. Corruption is incredibly widespread, and plagues the country’s politics, courts, and police forces at the local and national levels. Many voters view Duterte’s approach as necessary to combat this immense problem, which persists despite years of promises from many so-called anticorruption candidates.

While I understand this frustration with Philippine corruption, Duterte’s zero-tolerance approach is short-sighted, misguided, and incredibly dangerous. As voters prepare for the election next month, they should consider the troubling implications of Duterte’s violent approach to the fight against corruption.

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