There is some indication that corruption is getting worse in many parts of the world. Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016 (the 2017 edition is due to be released in February), which scores and ranks countries according to their perceived level of corruption, found that more countries had worsened than improved. Another survey by Transparency International, the US Corruption Barometer 2017, found that almost six in 10 American respondents said in late 2017 “that the level of corruption has risen in the past 12 months, up from around a third who said the same in January 2016.” The same survey found a significant increase in the number of Americans who also believe their government “is failing to fight corruption.”
Data and anecdotal cases suggest that people are angry about the levels of corruption they encounter or believe exist in government and public institutions. Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, last updated in November, found that 57 percent of people surveyed said their government was not doing well at fighting corruption. The same survey found that the Middle East and North Africa “had the highest percentage of citizens rating their government as doing a bad job at fighting corruption (68 percent), followed by Sub-Saharan Africa (63 percent).” In no major global region did a majority of respondents believe their government was doing well, though a majority in some individual countries were more positive.
Anger at corruption has played a significant role in political developments and protests in many countries, and this is likely to continue and may increase in 2018. The last year has seen protests in Iran, Ukraine, Romania, Russia, Israel and other countries that were partly or wholly an expression of anger at corruption and related problems. Often, disillusionment due to corruption mixes with broader economic grievances and anger reflecting nepotism, inequality and a sense that entrenched elites are not serving the broader interests of the public — a combustible combination.
Anger at the abuse of power has played a significant role in political developments and protests all over the world — and this is likely to continue and may increase, particularly in countries facing elections this year.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
In 2018, public resentment over corruption — and the political and legal consequences of allegations of corruption — will likely play a significant role in a number of elections. Brazil is a notable case, where corruption investigations have damaged multiple high-profile politicians. Former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is currently ahead in the polls looking toward the elections scheduled for October, but he has been convicted for corruption. If an appeals court upholds his conviction in a decision expected on Wednesday, he could be barred from running for president.
Brazil is not alone. In Mexico, growing public anger at the ruling PRI over multiple allegations of corruption and apparent attempts to thwart investigations into its actions are damaging the party as it prepares for presidential elections in July. Voters’ frustration with corruption is also likely to play a major role in elections in Colombia during the first half of this year. Countries such as Brazil, Mexico and Colombia may see an increase in anti-establishment sentiment, driven partly by voters who are fed up with corruption.
In some other countries that are preparing for elections, the ruling establishment is using corruption allegations to disqualify or undermine opponents. In some cases, when critics accuse the ruling government of corruption, the establishment turns the charge around against them. For example, in Russia, the government has barred leading opposition member and anti-corruption advocate Alexei Navalny from standing in presidential elections in March on the basis of an embezzlement conviction that many see as more political than legal.
The United States will hold elections for all House of Representatives seats and some Senate seats in November. Corruption alone is not a major factor driving voter choices in the US, but the deep dissatisfaction with government that fueled President Donald Trump’s rise has not eased under his leadership. A combination of frustration with political leaders’ inability to govern coherently, combined with growing inequality and, as noted earlier, increased concerns about corruption will contribute to a broader mix of anger at government that likely will produce a politically volatile environment around the elections.
A focus on anti-corruption measures does not occur only in democracies. Several non-democratic governments have also been undertaking high-profile efforts to root out corruption, such as in China and Vietnam. In many such countries, rulers genuinely recognize the ways in which corruption damages public trust and undermines economic development, and they are sincere about changing institutions and cultures that allow corruption to flourish. At the same time, it can be difficult for their citizens — and for outside actors, including foreign investors — to distinguish between measures taken against individuals for corrupt activities and measures designed to undermine political rivals.
Herein lies a major challenge for governments in 2018: How to respond to growing public anger over corruption in ways that effectively address its root causes — without deepening distrust between governments and their people.
Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risks. Her previous positions include deputy director for advisory with Oxford Analytica and managing editor of Arms Control Today.