World

Report: Populist leaders often add to corruption they vow to remove from governments

An index produced by Transparency International found that a majority of countries face significant levels of government corruption. But populist leaders voted in on promises to turn inequality and corruption around can further taint the institutions, researchers found.

Protesters show victory signs as Polish national flags wave behind during a demonstration against the populist government, in Warsaw, Poland, in December. A government corruption index published Wednesday suggests that there are links between populist leadership and a country's level of corruption.
Alix Keplicz/AP/File
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From the Philippines to Britain, 2016 was a year of political shake-ups, with voters in several countries across the globe ushering populist candidates or policies into office to combat inequality and "politics as usual," often highlighting corruption in the "insider" system they opposed. But in the push to reform their countries, such politicians can play a role in further corrupting government offices, a new report cautions, leading to continued social disparities and decreased transparency. 

An annual index of corruption by Transparency International, a Berlin-based watchdog organization, finds that two-thirds of the world's nations now fall below the midpoint grade on their scale of corruption, spanning nearly every continent – and more countries saw their scores slip, rather than climb, since last year. Corruption can result in anything from increased fees for trash removal, to sharply disparate distributions of wealth, power, and rights across a society, and often make voters cynical about leaders and institutions, leading them to turn away from "political elites" in favor of emerging populist candidates, the report released Wednesday notes.

Populist politicians often make promises to take back corrupt government institutions and put the power in the hands of people, garnering favor from supporters who place an emphasis on the merits of an exciting, outsider candidate over those who fit a traditional party's status quo. But the very corruption those leaders vowed to eradicate has been known to increase under their watch. With an emphasis on one leader, accountability and transparency can languish. Meanwhile, business and government entanglements tend to grow, making corruption and social inequality mutually reinforcing concepts.

“In part, what populism does, is it focuses power in the individual leader versus the party. It destroys and erodes the political trust,” Pippa Norris, a comparative politics lecturer at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government and author of the paper “Trump, Brexit, and the Rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash,” tells The Christian Science Monitor. “It also weakens accountability of the electorate. When you don’t have accountability, that often leads it open to other forms of power being abused and misused.”

Transparency International's scale used 100 points to indicate a “very clean” government and zero for a “highly corrupt” one, based on perceptions of business and country experts. Just 54 of 176 nations scored higher than 50 points. The organization, which re-evaluates the nations each year, determined that more had dropped in ranking this year, compared to last, than had improved. 

The world’s least corrupt nations included Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, and Switzerland, all scoring between 86 and 90 points on the index. Somalia, South Sudan, North Korea, Syria, and Yemen fell on the opposite side of the spectrum, all scoring fewer than 15 points, marking the global disparity in levels of corruption. The United States came in 18th, with a score of 74.

Among the nations that moved downward were Turkey and Hungary, whose scores have dropped in conjunction with the rise of populist politicians. Meanwhile, Argentina’s still-low score of 36 has lifted slightly following the ousting of a populist President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, the report notes.

“In countries with populist or autocratic leaders, we often see democracies in decline and a disturbing pattern of attempts to crack down on civil society, limit press freedom, and weaken the independence of the judiciary. Instead of tackling crony capitalism, those leaders usually install even worse forms of corrupt systems,” José Ugaz, the chair of Transparency International, said in a statement. “Only where there is freedom of expression, transparency in all political processes and strong democratic institutions, can civil society and the media hold those in power to account and corruption be fought successfully.”

While populism has shaped politics in Latin American and Eastern Europe in recent years, President Trump’s campaign and early days in the Oval Office have seen many analysts suggest the trend has arrived in the US. Running on a promise to “drain the swamp” of career politicians in the Capitol, he garnered support from those who felt marginalized in a changing, diversifying America.

Since the inauguration, the new administration has provided "alternative facts" about crowds at the event and barred the Environmental Protection Agency from openly disclosing information to the public. In addition, the president faces a lawsuit regarding potential conflicts of interest between his business and position as an elected official. All together, some observers say, those types of actions mirror patterns across the globe in which populist and autocratic leaders have risen to power.

“We’re seeing a wave of voter anger sweeping across a lot of democratic systems,” Kim Lane Scheppele, a sociology and international affairs professor at Princeton University, tells the Monitor. “Sometimes they’re upset with corruption, sometimes it’s deadlock, sometimes the sense that whoever they vote for, nothing changes. Then, they become willing to vote for the appeals of these populist leaders who say, ‘I am the state, I am your voice.’ ”

When "outsider" candidates with unconventional, or even controversial, goals try to put their ideas to work, they're sometimes met by opposition from more traditional legislatures or judiciaries. Viewing their policy goals as mandates from the electorate, these leaders often work to curtail access to information and delegitimize the media, pack the judiciary with judges to rule in their favor, and change electoral laws, saying that each adjustment to the balance of power comes as a way to carry out the will of the people.

“Corruption gets encouraged by these kinds of leaders,” Dr. Scheppele adds. “I do think that that’s exactly the process that we’re seeing now.”

But the trend isn't any easy one to reverse. Almost every country has some regulations and laws meant to block corruption, yet none have completely cleaned up their institutions. 

That pattern, some say, comes from the nature of government and its ties to business prospects. As long as the two remain entwined, they argue, it’s unlikely that more committees or laws can eradicate misconduct.

“The more power the government has, the more profitable it is to capture it,” says Marian Tupy, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity at the Cato Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank. “Corruption cannot be gotten rid of by increasing the size of government. It doesn’t matter how many levels of anti-corruption you have. People who want to corrupt public officials will always find a way to do it.”

Instead, he argues, reform could focus on privatizing institutions and emphasizing government's authority to investigate cases of fraud, environmental degradation, or other actions by the private sector that place citizens in jeopardy. 

“We already have millions of laws on the books and look, we have corruption left and right,” he tells the Monitor.

Still, there are ways for citizens to act. In countries facing severe levels of corruption, people often lack means to investigate institutions or hold leaders accountable. Soon after the election of populist leaders, however, citizen-led movements and protests calling for transparency and good governance can have an impact, experts say.

“It depends on how far along the process of corroding the balance of power is,” Scheppele says. “If you act quickly, it’s a lot easier. The only solution is a democratic pushback.”