This module is a resource for lecturers  


Corruption and democracy


Generally speaking, well-established democracies have lower levels of corruption compared to authoritarian regimes or young democracies (Montinola and Jackman, 2002; Warren, 2004). However, if a regime is democratic, this alone does not guarantee a lack of corruption (Kramer, 2018; Kube, 2017; Seldadyo and De Haan, 2011; Uslaner and Rothstein, 2016). For instance, democracies may experience corruption when they lack transparency in political and campaign financing, have outdated laws on freedom of information, provide insufficient protection to whistle-blowers or have unreliable media. Furthermore, corruption - or at least the perception thereof - tends to increase as countries begin to develop democratic processes. As explained by Pring and Vrushi (2019), "countries which recently transitioned to democratic governance often did not develop effective anti-corruption and integrity mechanisms, and now find themselves stuck in a cycle of high corruption and low-performing democratic institutions".

Using a panel of 103 countries over five years, Sung (2004) found that as countries become more democratic, levels of corruption first decrease, then increase, then decrease again. This is a combination of rising economic opportunities in the form of rents to be captured (Menes, 2006) and the inability of government institutions to establish appropriate control and oversight mechanisms over these new opportunities (Schneider, 2007). Andvig (2006) further explains that corruption grows in places experiencing "fast change", as in rapidly developing economies, post-communist countries, or those transitioning from authoritarian to democratic government - where institutional needs are changing rapidly and situation-specific incentives include increased uncertainty. Over time, as governments develop their institutions and capacities, corruption tends to diminish. However, this is not inevitable and studies show that corruption exists even in the most stable and successful democracies (Pring and Vushi, 2019; for a critical reflection see Stephenson, 2019).

Thus, even if democracy is viewed as a preferable system for tackling corruption, it is not democracy in general, but rather specific political institutions, actors and processes that have an anti-corruption effect by serving as checks and balances, including the role played by different political parties. Furthermore, when discussing corruption and democracy, we must be aware that there are various types of democratic systems across the world, from liberal democracy to democratic socialism as well as direct and indirect democracy. The different democratic systems could experience different forms and levels of corruption. Nevertheless, as discussed in further detail below, corruption risks are generally higher in authoritarian systems (or autocracies), which tend to be characterized by informally defined executive power, limited political pluralism, media control, human rights violations and military reinforcement of the regime. These features of autocracies make social mobilization - a key aspect of the fight against corruption - more challenging. For a related discussion on citizen participation in anti-corruption efforts, see Module 10 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Horizontal and vertical accountability

According to institutionalism (the study of politics through a focus on formal institutions of government), the factors that have the strongest inhibiting effect on a country's level of corruption are the character, design and transparency of the political system and its institutions. To better understand this, a distinction is made between horizontal and vertical accountability. Horizontal accountability is associated with the formal mechanisms that are installed within the government to monitor sound governance and provide checks and balances. These mechanisms are often appointed or funded by the government and, as such, they may not provide the best incentives or build the best capacity for addressing corruption in the government.

Vertical accountability refers to the accountability of governments towards their citizens, which is mostly achieved through elections. Since democracies and hybrid regimes give their citizens a role in choosing their political leaders, elected officials who have been proven to be corrupt can be "punished" for their actions by being voted out of office in the next election (Abed and Gupta, 2002; Bågenholm and Charron, 2015). However, we must not overlook the fact that "democratic" elections can be rigged or adversely affected by oppressive regimes. In addition, there are a variety of subtler forms of influencing democratic elections (for a study of these forms of corruption see Stockemer, 2018).

Bringing all this together is the notion of separation of powers, which includes checks and balances, electoral competition, free and fair elections and judicial control - all of which limit and decrease the opportunities for people to engage in dishonest actions (Dahlström, Lapuente and Teorell, 2012; Holmberg and Rothstein, 2015). At the same time, in keeping with the discussion of institutionalism, it should be mentioned that the relationship between corruption, institutions, political systems, culture and gender is highly complex (Debski and others, 2018; Stensöta, Wängnerud and Svensson, 2015). Some of the research illustrating this complexity is discussed in Module 8 of the E4J University Module Series on Anti-Corruption.

Voters: ignorance, inconsistency, and trade-offs

Despite the safeguards that democratic and hybrid systems provide against corruption, citizens often do not fully exploit their rights, and do not use elections to express general discontent and "punish" corrupt politicians at the poll (Johnston 2013). "Punish" in this context is distinct from legal, administrative and civil consequences associated with criminalizing corruption (for more information, see the 2015 UNODC working paper on the use of civil and administrative proceedings against corruption). Rather, it can be taken to imply "seek to actively vote out or remove from office". On the one hand, citizens mostly express a clear rejection of corruption and negatively evaluate politicians involved in corruption. On the other hand, there is some evidence that citizens tend to prioritize competent representatives that "get the job done" and "deliver the goods" over honest representatives (Pattie and Johnston, 2012; Allen, Birch and Sarmiento-Mirwaldt, 2018). As such, the electoral ability to vote out corrupt politicians is limited and contingent on many factors.

Empirical research offers different explanations for voters' ignorance, apathy and decisions not to actively vote out a corrupt politician or party. These explanations range from low levels of citizens' political awareness, to lack of transparency and information about wrongdoings, as well as partisanship, weak institutions, voters' inability to effectively monitor and question politicians' actions, and the emerging problems of information saturation or overload (Vivyan, Wagner and Tarlov, 2012; Zechmeister and Zizumbo-Colunga, 2013). The following paragraphs discuss different hypotheses that attempt to explain voter behaviour in electing corruption officials. The discussion is informed by empirical findings that tend to be general in nature. Therefore, students should be advised to exercise caution in how they apply the findings and to avoid generalizations about voters and corruption.

Besides the inconsistency hypothesis, which implies that citizens are not always consistent in their voting patterns at different levels of elections, the information hypothesis is one of the main explanations why voters do not necessarily vote out corrupt politicians. It suggests that when voters lack information about a candidate's involvement in corruption, they support corrupt politicians. This is also in line with the research of Klašnja (2017), showing that over the past several decades, more than 60% of the members of the United States Congress who have been involved in a corruption scandal have been re-elected. His findings indicate that the more politically aware the voters are, the less likely they are to support corrupt politicians. At the same time, partisanship could mitigate the difference between the low- and high-awareness voters, as the highly aware tend to be more partisan and, as such, they may be more willing to forgive corrupt politicians. This phenomenon is also in line with the parties-candidates hypothesis which suggests that voters usually differentiate between parties and candidates. It means that they do not only consider candidates' individual skills and performances, but that the party for which the candidates are running might be the more important consideration for their voting decision (Anduiza Gallego and Muñoz, 2013; Cobb and Taylor, 2015).

Furthermore, the trade-off hypothesis implies that voters expect that the overall benefits from a politician's actions in government will outweigh the costs associated with the politician's corruption and other illegal activities. The idea here is that (notwithstanding individual differences between people) citizens may be more likely to vote for a politician that is corrupt but otherwise perceived as competent than for an honest but incompetent politician. In other words, citizens perceive a "trade-off" between anti-corruption reforms and other desirable goals, such as increasing local welfare or attracting local investment or security (Fernández-Vázquez, Barberá and Rivero, 2016; Zechmeister and Zizumbo-Colunga, 2013). Another explanation for voters' ignorance is the loyalty hypothesis, which is associated with the finding that "right-wing voters are more loyal and faithful than left-wing voters" (Jiménez and García, 2018). Finally, it is worth considering in this context how corruption is being exploited as a theme to win elections, including by corrupt leaders who get elected by promising to fight corruption. Voters feel they are voting out a corrupt government, when in fact the new government is corrupt. For related discussions of the ways in which psychological mechanisms, contexts and situations can adversely impact on people's ability to be ethical and, for example, resist corruption, see Module 6, Module 7 and Module 8 of the E4J University Module Series on Integrity and Ethics.

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