In the past few days one former president turned himself in to serve his sentence (albeit a day late) and another received a 24-year jail term. It seems that corruption scandals are creating political waves on a weekly basis. Test your knowledge – how many heads of government have lost office under the cloud of corruption-related allegations in the past two years?
Anne M. Simmons at The San Diego Union-Tribune highlights six world leaders in this category. Some TAI digging suggests that since the start of 2016, five more – for a total of eleven – have resigned or have been removed due to corruption-related charges and allegations – four in the first three months of 2018 alone. The countries include, in chronological order: Iceland, Kyrgyzstan, Brazil, Montenegro, South Korea, Pakistan, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Slovakia, Peru, and Mauritius. Who are we missing?
This list grows even further when considering other heads of state and their governments whose positions and political capital have been severely shaken or damaged by corruption-related scandals – Italy, Romania, Czech Republic, Ukraine, Lithuania, Montenegro, Malaysia, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Colombia, Venezuela, Uruguay, and of course, the U.S., come to mind.
Their stories all bear similarities. The usual litany of tax evasion, contract rigging, nepotism, illegal foreign financial backings, illegal use of public funds for personal gain, covering up financial and associated crimes, and vote buying.
More interesting is the public response. Revelations have mobilized the masses in unforeseen ways. For example, in South Korea, youth civic engagement was critical in driving change amid the corruption crisis; some two million people showed up in Seoul to demand the immediate resignation of former President Park Geun-hye. In Iceland public pressure mounted similarly, leading to the resignation of its Prime Minister. Most recently, in Slovakia, a seemingly secure government was undone by outrage at the murder of a journalist and his girlfriend.
Does this signal growing worldwide impatience with corruption and its impacts? It is notable that the political impacts are not confined to any one geography or regime type. Iceland is far from Kyrgyzstan in context, but both have felt the fallout of testing public patience on corruption. The ousting and weakening of governments embroiled in scandals at this juncture is a peculiar convergence across differences in political systems, legal institutions, and socioeconomic contexts. It may reflect rising anti-establishment populism and a weariness with a system that seems rigged to benefit elites. Frustrations at persistent corruption can combine with declining public trust and become a breeding ground for populist forces, sowing political chaos. Italy is a good example, with the rise of the M5S and the Lega Nord, owing much to the ineffectual center-left and the corrupt center-right.
As Thomas and Christopher Carothers recently noted, this wave may not last at this pace – smart leaders will note the trend and take a proactive stance on corruption. Governments, in order to stay relevant and legitimate to their people, have a great incentive to stay attuned to populist sentiments. In South Africa, political giant Jacob Zuma was ousted by his own party – the establishment heeded the changing winds. Some regimes, such as China, Turkey, and the Phillippines, despite having essentially full control, quite successfully use their strong anti-corruption stances to garner domestic support and thus consolidate power and legitimacy. Xi Jinping and Erdogan’s use of “anti-corruption” rhetoric is a reminder that public interest in tackling the corrupt may reinforce more authoritarian as well as democratic tendencies.
Nonetheless, transparency and accountability actors stand to be encouraged. This wave encourages further reflection on what we know mobilizes public action, not apathy. Should good governance advocates, even in authoritarian contexts, seek to align with populist, anti-establishment players to leverage sentiment around corruption and pressure for reform? To help assess such tactical considerations, we have lots still to learn from both those countries that have seen governments fall and those where governments are seeking to reinforce their anti-corruption credentials.
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