The late US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia once wrote that leaders elected in an open democracy are “constituted” to respond to the moral values of the people. That truism is now under test in two troubled democracies, Brazil and Ukraine. Voters there, having fairly elected their representatives, are now decrying a level of official corruption that has led to political turmoil at the very top.
In Brazil, bold prosecutors have opened corruption probes against many top legislators, who have responded by trying to deflect attention with an impeachment process against President Dilma Rousseff. Congress may be right in its charges against her – that she secretly shifted money from public banks to cover a fiscal deficit. But few Brazilians accept that as the real issue. Ms. Rousseff has not been pinned with personal corruption. Yet she is also seen by many as head of a corrupt system, one that is a drag on the economy. If she is ousted in a Senate vote, that will hardly quell voter anger. The vice president who would replace her is himself entangled in the corruption probe.
While Brazil’s prosecutors are being hailed as heroes, they warn that the burden of cleaning up a democracy should not rest solely on the court system or bureaucratic reforms. Breaking a culture of impunity starts with voters.
“We know a lot of people put their hopes in us,” stated Deltan Dallagnol, lead prosecutor in the case involving kickbacks from the state oil company, Petrobras, in an interview with the Guardian newspaper. “This case won’t change Brazil, but it can be a lever for society. Society is the main actor, not us.”
In Ukraine, where a corrupt president was forced to resign in 2014 by protesters, a newly elected regime has started some reforms but has also been tarred with claims of corruption. It did not help when the leaked Panama Papers revealed President Petro Poroshenko had hid his wealth in an offshore company. As reforms have stalled, and blame for that attributed to powerful oligarchs, the prime minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk, was forced to resign last week. He was replaced by a close aide to the president, dampening hopes of further tackling corruption.
Oddly, having elected Ukraine’s parliament, a large majority of voters in a recent survey described it as the most corrupt political institution in the country. How to explain this or, better yet, change it?
“The public’s perceptions and behavior will change slowly,” writes Thomas de Waal, a European expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “A shift in attitudes will happen faster if assisted by educational initiatives and more media discussion of everyday corruption, especially in Ukraine’s regions.”
What is easily forgotten as these political dramas play out in Brazil and Ukraine is a need for self-reflection by the very citizenry that casts the ballots – and thus must also cast the mold for honest governance. The “system” is shaped by voters and thereafter shapes them. They must promote candidates, elect them, and forever track their work with the assistance of prosecutors, whistle-blowers, auditors, and the media. Democracy is merely a mirror of a country’s moral climate.