Can the Global Anticorruption Movement Survive Populism?

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October 4, 2018

Can the Global Anticorruption Movement Survive Populism?

Where could this increased demand for new non-corrupt ruling elites on the part of voters, who care primarily for their self-interest rather than abstract principles, take us?

By Alina Mungiu-Pippidi

  • Corruption
  • Democracy
  • Europe
  • History
  • Politics

The following essay were presented as part of the day-long conference “Democracy in Trouble?” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. As the post-Cold War democratic order is straining under the dual threat of authoritarian and exclusionary movements on the national level and transnational oligarchic networks, the goal of the conference was to take account of the different facets and causes behind these developments. Originally published on the Mitchell Center’s website, these pieces are also natural fits for Public Seminar’s Vertical “Liberal Democracy in Question.”

On April 6, 2018, the former South Korean president Park Geun-hye was sentenced to 24 years in prison for abuse of power and corruption. The same day, South Africa’s former President Jacob Zuma was charged with corruption, racketeering, fraud and money laundering linked to a 1990s arms deal, after he had enjoyed immunity for many years. The next day, April 7, former Brazilian President Ignacio Lula was arrested after being sentenced to 12 years in prison for money laundering and passive corruption. In the afternoon of April 7, I got a call from a British host of a popular talk-show who wanted to discuss fighting corruption (not a frequent occurrence). Anti-corruption efforts had clearly become newsworthy. “We want to know” she said, “how you guys do it.”

The rise of global demand for public integrity

At first, it did feel like a field day (and year) for the international anticorruption movement and a culmination of the global demand for better governance which erupted into headlines with Brazil’s World Soccer Club in 2014. We had sparkling wine that evening with a few friends from the global movement for fiscal transparency gathered in Amsterdam. Fiscal transparency is a significant determinant in controlling corruption, particularly if it is combined with media freedom or civil society activism. One calls for the other. After all, the world should never forget that the drive for government rationalization in the whole world, the French Revolution (as the British entertained no thoughts of exporting their government model at that time) started due to fiscal transparency. The Finance Minister Jacques Necker made the first French budget public in 1781, creating an outcry when the huge royal expenditures, the many debts, and the numerous privileges were revealed. Maybe the fiscal crisis could have still been averted — the jury is out on this one — but the legitimacy crisis could not.

It is so terribly tempting to see a linear evolution from the abolition of privileges in France in the 18th century to today’s downfall of mighty Presidents and Princes anywhere, from Pretoria to Riyadh — disregarding everything that points in the opposite direction. For example, the United States (Americans were the gloomiest in our Amsterdam party) might be seen as a mere inconvenience, as might other “pockets of laggards” who have not yet grasped the course of history and should stand aside lest it trample them. After all, it was a glorious trajectory, despite its casualties like American President Garfield being assassinated because a campaign supporter did not get the government job he was betting on. But this led to the Pendleton Act of 1883, the first to make the government apparatus autonomous from private interests (even in the form of the winning party, which had been the prior norm in America). The course of the international drive for good governance runs through what we see today as the world’s best governed countries. Too easily do people forget that the French intervention in Switzerland had a strong hand in creating the Swiss miracle (a First Consul named Bonaparte provided the Swiss with the constitution eliminating privileges, introducing a separation of powers and a federalism close to the one still operating today). And in 1905 China, the world’s most populous country, abolished its traditional Confucian examination system for civil servants and resorted to Western models.

The risk to the Rest of emulating the West

Alongside national grassroots coalitions, whose numbers are growing worldwide, the United States has been both the main leader and enforcer of the global anticorruption movement, heirs to Bonaparte’s institutional Swiss intervention. Nothing would have moved without America, itself shaken by corruption scandals in the 1970s which created a shock equivalent to the publication of Necker’s French budget and thus led to the adoption of Foreign Corrupt Practice Act (FCPA).

President Trump criticized FCPA when still a candidate, but he might have learned more about it since then. FCPA is the only international legal instrument fully enforced and therefore the best available tool for the US to fight corruption. In 2014, ten years after its adoption, I checked if countries that had adopted the United Nations Convention against Corruption (UNCAC) had progressed more that those who did not. That was not the case. Others checked the OECD antibribery convention. Although it has the merit of establishing the principle of leveling the playing field, only a handful (UK, Germany) of its forty-plus signatories have started to implement it so far.

This has been overshadowed by the success of U.S. authorities in expanding tremendously the jurisdiction of FCPA overseas. The nearly billion dollar fine levied on Telia Co AB last fall is a case in point. At first sight, what does US have to do with bribes in Uzbekistan by a partly public Swedish company? Fortunately, hardly any big business exists without some tie to the US, and so U.S. Department of Justice investigators have increasingly targeted alleged corruption by foreign companies, entities and individuals with links to the U.S. financial system or, in fact, any US ties, even a computer server. Additionally, partnering with foreign countries has allowed an even greater reach: with Netherlands for the Telia case, with Switzerland in the probe of current and former officials at FIFA, the world soccer federation, and so forth. Furthermore, hundreds of holders of Brazilian Petrobras stock have filed ‘derivative suits’ in American courts as a result of the FCPA investigation, claiming that the unethical behavior of the company harmed their profits. Such private activism helps in enforcing corporate integrity.

How far can double standards hold?

Of course, the downside is the complaint that Americans bully the rest of the world. However, there is only one circumstance where “imperialism” can be denounced with just cause when a county promotes global integrity: double standards. The emulation of a blueprint of honest and rational government worked fabulously not because France under Napoleon, Britain under Victoria, or the US under George W. Bush were free from corruption when selectively promoting it abroad, but because they had reformed themselves successfully in recent times. Just as in the nineteenth century Europeans struggled to abolish slavery in Africa once they had just managed it themselves. The same applies to global integrity promotion, and therefore nothing is more problematic than the backsliding of Western countries on good governance criteria, even as they attempt to impose these as universal norms for the rest of the world.

In 2005 I visited the US Office of Ethics to seek inspiration for a Romanian National Integrity Agency (NIA). Since then, the NIA was born amidst great political adversity and is presently managing what might well be the word’s most advanced conflict of interest digital system, the Prevent program, which checks public contracts awards against interests of public officials. Imagine what the staff there thinks when they see this American agency involved in legal tussles with President Trump and his family. In Romania, the NIA has lawsuits with hundreds of mayors and MPs in the attempt to impose the norm of integrity for the first time in Romanian governance. But why struggle, if there is no better world abroad? If conflict of interest rules no longer apply in the US, why would people apply it anywhere else, particularly where it might be quite politically dangerous to do it?

If the West regresses on good governance, the situation is really problematic for the Rest that have never reached the historical threshold whereby bureaucrats get selected by merit rather than via nepotism and connections, and private profit from public office becomes the exception rather than the norm. The West was admired by the Rest for having achieved those norms, but is this still the case? Or is it rather the case that the West, which had influenced the world due to its superior governance, is now losing ground on both governance and the social fabric which generated it in the first place?

What is the state of the demand for good governance?

Few people realize it, but the gap between public opinion in the West and in the Rest as to the integrity of their governments has been dangerously narrowing since the crisis. Gallup US, for instance has reported that since 2010 between 73% and 79% of Americans agree that “corruption is widespread throughout the government in this country.” Eurobarometer surveys dedicated to corruption have reported since 2013 that around two-thirds of Europeans believe that connections and bribes are the key to achievement in both public and private sector. The Global Corruption Barometer 2017 shows a world of highly critical citizens where the integrity of their elites is concerned. They see little difference between political leaders, civil servants and magistrates. The exceptions are few: only Scandinavia and some Anglo-Saxon countries, plus a handful of successful newcomers to control of corruption in contemporary times — Estonia and Uruguay in particular.

The world is fed up with self-serving politicians, but what is the alternative to them as yet? How many can play the Macron role and steal the ground from radical populists? When all traditional politicians are perceived as corrupt, the poorest and least educated voters would rather choose radical leaders because they are seen as the most anti-political. Strait-talking politicians using messianic language who promise to ‘regenerate’ politics or the country or both are the likeliest choices. Their own personal corruption does not seem to matter, since the resort to radical populism is a last, non-critical resort — as support for fascism was in its time. What the candidate has to deliver is the destruction of the old elites and their replacement with new ones, and if he can manage that, the rest is forgiven. This fundamental mandate precedes their success and explains it. An alliance with some identity-based ideology also helps, as in the case of Mr. Erdogan, the most successful leader of our times in elite replacement.

The West is indeed gradually losing what had been its strength in other times: objective voters and stakeholders who created the autonomy of the state from private interests in earlier historical times. Anticorruption demand may have risen, but it is still wildly partisan. Had it not been for the involvement of an increasingly independent judiciary, Zuma, Park or Lula might still be there, as they still have considerable public support — voters who claim in surveys that corruption (understood as the other camp’s corruption) is terrible. The same goes for the voters of President Trump or of former French candidate Francois Fillon, who thought until the very last moment that it was no big problem that he put his entire family on the public payroll.

The increased partisanship in public opinion and the perception by the public that the traditional objective guardians of integrity, such as the media, are de facto partisan. A Quinnipiac University National Poll found that the majority of voters in US disapprove of the way media covers Trump, although they do not approve of how he treats the media. This trend has narrowed down considerably the objective ‘center,’ the only one which matters for control of corruption. This key political stratum, where liberals have been replacing more traditional actors for the past hundred years, has grown thin and enjoys far less respect and following than one or more generations ago. This is for various reasons, some connected with integrity (banks have forfeited all their trust capital), and some not (elites have advanced too far and too fast on issues such as LGBT and cosmopolitanism.) It is this objective middle ground which decides on immunity-lifting, impeachment, etc. If you lose that middle ground you are stuck.

Where to next?

What are the perspectives for the world where public integrity is concerned? Where could this increased demand for new non-corrupt ruling elites on the part of voters, who care primarily for their self-interest rather than abstract principles, take us? The global anticorruption community is quite a hypocritical playground. This is why some of President Trump’s positions resonate with voters. And, even as the EU bashes Viktor Orban, German carmaker BMW announces that it picked Hungary for a billion Euro investment for their new car factory. Some big companies have already settled into a pattern of corruption and laundering their court-imposed penalties on ‘integrity programs,’ while trading in Crimea and lobbying to be exempted from sanctions on Russia. We celebrate the downfall of former presidents in corrupt countries as triumphs of global anticorruption, but those replacing them all too often simply inherit their rents and exploit them further. It is rents we should be after rather than people.

But does it really matter what the internationals do? No country has progressed on good governance in the past twenty years based primarily on following Western institutional advice. None of the few success stories in my book A Quest for Good Governance: How Societies Build Control of Corruption is a success of the international community. The true success stories are about emulation and a domestically rooted wish to succeed, not about external pressure. People follow less what the doctor says than what the doctor does. What matters is the mere existence of the Western integrity benchmark, which provides an impetus to the growing coalitions for integrity in Brazil, India, Ukraine, South Africa and the lot.

Human nature being what it is (as Miss Marple used to say), this is a long term battle which we shall not win any time soon. But it is important that our generation stay on course and at least permit a reversal of the global normative order that took more than two hundred years to build. If we let the world backslide to sheer self-interest, America will be the first to lose, because America could never win, where integrity is concerned, a race to the bottom. What President Trump should realize is that unless he chooses to endorse universal integrity standards his leadership is just not sustainable: he enfeebles his own authority and the role that America plays in the world.

Alina Mungiu-Pippidi is Professor of Democracy Studies at the Hertie School of Governance in Berlin.


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