Cleansing Democracy

What do Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Kim Young Sam, and Bill Clinton have in common? They are all democratically elected leaders who campaigned as anticorruption crusaders, and who now reside under a cloud of scandal.

Mr. Cardoso's cloud, so far, may be the least ominous. The Brazilian president stands accused of having countenanced the payment of bribes to legislators to get them to vote for a constitutional amendment that allows elected executives, like himself, to run for reelection. At issue are mysterious tape recordings of alleged bribe takers discussing the arrangements.

All is denied by the president. But many Brazilians, hoping that Cardoso's tenure would be untainted, are disappointed.

South Koreans probably share those feelings. President Kim prosecuted his two predecessors on charges of taking bribes and payoffs from the country's captains of industry. Now his own son, an adviser to the president, is jailed, awaiting prosecution for the same kind of offense - using political influence as a means of self-enrichment. How much did Kim, who set out to clean up Korean politics, know about his son's alleged graft?

President Clinton, too, once talked of a "squeaky clean" administration. Gift-taking Cabinet members and campaign donation probes have obscured that pledge. And Whitewater and the Paula Jones case, taints from the old days in Arkansas, clamor on.

These three examples hardly exhaust the supply among the world's increasing number of democracies. Yet it's reassuring that charges of corruption come out, stand the glare of public scrutiny, and prod corrective action - whether in the courts, legislative chambers, or at the polls. That's how democracies cleanse themselves, more than through the voiced promises of politicians.

The alternative is a closed system where corruption takes root and is rarely exposed. There, change comes with much more anguish than that generated by even the biggest headlines trumpeting scandal. Look no farther than the former communist dictatorships of Eastern Europe, or Mobutu Sese Seko's Zaire.

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