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Poor democracies that aren't poor in demanding honesty

Progress in governance

In ousting a president who symbolized a corrupt elite, Brazil joins many other developing nations whose citizens have demanded honesty in elected government. Brazil can take lessons from anti-graft successes in India, Indonesia, and Nigeria.

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    Demonstrators in Rio de Janeiro sing the national anthem during a 2015 anti-government protest demanding the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff.
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When Brazil’s Senate voted to remove President Dilma Rousseff from office last month, the country joined a new club of developing-nation democracies forced to respond to rising public demands for clean government. In places such as Nigeria, India, and South Africa, corruption has become the top issue and has led to new graft-busting leaders. For scandal-packed Brazil, ousting Ms. Rousseff was seen as a cleansing moment, or “the beginning of a new era,” as the main prosecutor in the impeachment trial said.

Indeed, changing leaders, whether by election, mass protests, or impeachment, is only an initial step in a democracy’s journey toward honest and transparent governance. In Brazil, a string of protests since 2013 was mainly fueled by a giant scandal involving the state oil firm Petrobras, which the ruling parties used as a piggy bank. Yet just as important, a new crop of prosecutors and judges dedicated to equality before the law were willing to stand up to traditional political pressure.

Even after the impeachment, Brazil needs deep-seated reforms to end a culture of corruption. Most of all it must change a political system that relies on cash to win votes in the legislature. And its now-chastened leaders in Brasília, starting with a new president, Michel Temer, must ensure the independence of prosecutors and the judiciary.

Brazilians can take comfort that they are not alone among poor democracies in learning how to curb bribery, kickbacks, and illegal bank accounts.

In India, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has put bureaucrats and politicians on notice by making government tenders and bidding more transparent. And a new tax system is expected to reduce demands for bribes by local officials. His election in 2014 was driven in part by a mass anticorruption movement.

In South Africa, voter frustration over corruption within the ruling African National Congress led to major election losses for the party in key cities last month. In the nation’s largest city, Johannesburg, the new mayor from the Democratic Alliance, Herman Mashaba, declared corruption to be “public enemy No.1.”

In Ukraine, new anti-corruption bodies are finally bringing cases to court in hopes of breaking a culture of impunity, two years after protests forced a president, Viktor Yanukovych, from office. A critical step was Western funding and support of the National Anti-Corruption Bureau. In Guatemala, too, outside support for an anti-corruption probe helped fell a president in 2015.

In Indonesia, the 2014 election of Joko Widodo as president ushered in a new campaign against corruption, led mainly by an independent agency known by its initials KPK. While the agency has conducted prosecutions of top-level officials, it also promotes a program to help families teach integrity and honesty to children.

In Nigeria, a new president, Muhammadu Buhari, has brought zero tolerance of corruption and launched a “war against indiscipline” in government. He is relying heavily on a rejuvenated graft-fighting body, the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission. But he is also trying to overhaul the oil sector to end a long history of bribery.

Taken together, the efforts in these democracies represent a sea change in public thinking. With new digital tools, citizens are more aware of corruption and can more easily organize to choose leaders that reflect their desire for honest government. Getting there is not always quick and straightforward. But corrupt leaders are getting the message. Brazil is only the latest example.

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