The Orban Effect, or Why the EU Needs to Take a Hard Line on Anticorruption Backsliding

After Viktor Orban’s election to the Hungarian premiership in 2010, he set Hungary on a course to become an “illiberal democracy.” As part and parcel of that vision, Orban began to increase corruption in Hungary, building a new class of oligarchs (including his family and friends) dependent on crony capitalism. Indeed, Orban’s Hungary is now one of the most corrupt states in Europe (see here, here, and here), with government and EU funds regularly misappropriated, wasted, or flat-out stolen. And while one must always be careful about drawing strong conclusions from changes in a country’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) score, it’s certainly notable that Hungary has dropped 10 spots on the CPI ranking since 2011, the first full year of Orban’s rule. These developments are not only worrisome in and of themselves, but many worry that Orban’s approach—not only his far-right politics, but the entrenched oligarchic corruption he has fostered—might become normalized not only in Hungary but throughout the region.

That worry is well-founded. Orban’s ideas have not been contained to Hungary. The spread of the “illiberal state” and of corrupt quasi-authoritarian oligarchy has precipitated a crisis across Europe. What should international actors—particularly the EU—do in response? Two things:

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Brazil’s Electoral Dilemma: Which Outcome Will Be Better for Anticorruption?

My post last week expressed some dismay at the political situation in Brazil, and the role that understandable disgust at widespread corruption in the left-wing Worker’s Party (PT), which controlled the presidency from 2003 to 2016, seems to be playing in contributing to the astonishing electoral success of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro—whose extremist views, history of bigotry, violent rhetoric, and admiration for autocrats has led some to label him, with justification, as a quasi-fascist—was the top vote-getter in the first round of Brazilian’s two-round presidential election system, and he is favored to win the run-off against PT candidate Fernando Haddad on October 28. Though I’m no expert on Brazil or its politics, this situation—voter revulsion at the corruption of the mainstream parties leading to the rise of a tough-talking extremist—is distressingly familiar. It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out in several countries now, usually with quite unfortunate consequences. So, much as I believe that corruption is a serious problem, and tend to support aggressive anticorruption efforts—including the so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigations in Brazil—I used my last post to express my dismay that anticorruption sentiments might propel someone like Bolsonaro to victory. Some things, I argued, are more important than corruption.

The post seems to have touched a nerve—I’ve gotten far more feedback on that post (some in the public comments section, some in private communications) than anything else I’ve written in the four and half years I’ve been blogging about corruption. While some of the comments have been the sort of substance-free invective one gets used to on the internet, a lot of people have provided useful, thoughtful, constructive criticism and pushback of various kinds. So I thought that perhaps it would be worth doing another post on this general topic, and connecting my thoughts about the current Brazilian political situation to some more general themes or problems that those of us who work on anticorruption need to confront, whether or not we have any particular interest in Brazil. Continue reading