Anti-Corruption Drives Face the Law of Unintended Consequences Worldwide – commentary

Around the World, Anti-Corruption Drives Face the Law of Unintended Consequences   

Frida Ghitis |WPR: World Politics Review

In recent years, a combination of factors has converged to produce an unprecedented number of high-profile anti-corruption investigations around the world. From Brazil to South Korea, from the Panama Papers to the global FIFA scandals, publics across the globe have seen their worst suspicions confirmed, as daring investigative journalists and hard-charging prosecutors lay out case after case, revealing the details of pervasive malfeasance at the loftiest levels of power.

At first glance, this is unquestionably a positive development for society as a whole, for the economies of the countries affected and for the global political environment. Corruption corrodes the moral fiber of a nation. It undercuts the efficient functioning of the economy. And it taints the decision-making of politicians whose job it is to make the best choices they can for the benefit of their country.               

The ultimate toll of corruption is incalculable in terms of lost jobs, lost lives and lost hope, and any move to curtail it is to be welcomed. Yet, despite all the crooks toppled by the ongoing tsunami of anti-graft cases, not all the repercussions are cause for celebration.Like so many other beneficial endeavors, the campaign against corruption has fallen victim to the law of unintended consequences.

There are several ways in which wide-ranging investigations and prosecutions, even successful ones, have backfired.

For the public at large, particularly in poor countries and young democracies, the notion that the powerful don’t play by the rules hardly came as a surprise. But when the scale of the corruption was laid bare, the reality had the unfortunate effect among many people of undermining faith in the country’s institutions, opening a path for a new generation of demagogues.

The rapid-fire investigations that have left scores of once-powerful politicians and business figures behind bars have also left many of the powerless thinking that corruption is even more widespread than they thought.

In addition, the investigative zeal has triggered such alarm among those with something to hide that murders of investigative journalists have spiked, as wrong-doers seek to intimidate reporters.

Further, the unceasing headlines have given venal autocrats the world over a thin cover: “Everyone does it,” they can claim, as they try to undercut the work of local corruption watchdogs.

Perhaps nowhere has the fight against institutionalized bribery had more dramatic results than in Latin America, where an astonishing number of presidents and ex-presidents, from Brazil to Guatemala, have landed in jail, many of them as part of investigations into the mammoth bribery operations of the Brazilian contracting firm Odebrecht.

With prosecutors relentlessly continuing their work, one might think that corruption would be seen as lessening. But that’s not the case. The latest Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International shows that, despite the major strides in the battle against graft, the region scores just as poorly.

When prosecutors, encouraged by the crowds, managed to bring down presidents, as happened in Guatemala, for example – the public was delirious. Hundreds of thousands took to the streets of Guatemala City in 2015, fueling the determination of investigators who had uncovered massive theft by then-President Otto Perez Molina. A subsequently convicted, Molina is serving time in prison.

The next time Guatemalans went to the polls, they elected a man with no political experience. Jimmy Morales, a television comedian, ran on the motto of “Neither corrupt, nor a thief.”

Since taking office, Morales has done everything in his power to undermine the country’s most powerful weapon in the fight against corruption, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG.

Led by a respected Colombian judge, CICIG has helped Guatemala’s attorney general in her investigations. The result of its work is extraordinary. For once, Guatemala seems to be turning a corner in the fight against crime of all kinds.Since CICIG is now zeroing in on the president and his family, and Morales, with the help of legislators also concerned about their well-being, wants to shut down the panel.

The citizens of neighboring Honduras demanded their own internationally backed panel. Alarmed Honduran legislators tried to squash it, but their efforts failed, and now the so-called Pandora Case has produced charges against 38 politicians and officials. The case involves the diversion of state funds to finance political campaigns by the ruling party and the opposition.Among those named is the president’s brother-in-law.

For anti-corruption crusaders, the challenge is to tackle the problem without leaving the public feeling exhausted and demoralized.It was that sense of exasperation, along with frustration with soaring crime rates, that left Brazil open to the far-right demagoguery of the just-elected Jair Bolsonaro.

In Brazil, the popular former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is in prison, and a who’s who of the political and business world are either doing time or under investigation as part of the Lava Jato or Car Wash case. Many Brazilians believe the anti-corruption crusade is being manipulated for political purposes.The unrelated case that led to the impeachment of Lula’s successor, former President Dilma Rousseff, was seen by many as a coup d’etat dressed as an ethics case.

Some leaders are riding the anti-corruption wave to their benefit. In Peru, the list of tainted presidents boggles the mind:

The most recent president, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, was forced to resign under threat of impeachment for failing to reveal his ties to Odebrecht. His predecessor, Ollanta Humala, spent nine months in preventive detention as part of his corruption investigation. His predecessor, Alejandro Toledo, is a fugitive, wanted for corruption. The president before him, Alan Garcia, unsuccessfully sought political asylum in the Uruguayan Embassy to escape his graft investigation. And Alberto Fujimori has a jail cell waiting for him if he gets out of the hospital alive. His daughter, Keiko Fujimori, once thought to be the country’s next president, is also in jail on a charge of campaign finance violations.

Against this astonishing backdrop, President Martin Vizcarra is framing his presidency as the one that will institute the reforms and uproot corruption once and for all.

The battle against bribery is raging around the world. Africa, the worst region for corruption, has launched a new regional push. South Korea has seen its share of formerly untouchable figures imprisoned, and Europe, too, is tackling the problem. The U.S.A., which is backtracking under the Trump administration, appears to be an outlier.

The process, however, is not without risks. Fighting corruption remains indispensable to sustainable, democratic growth. But when institutions are weak, the dangers are heightened.

For developing nations, the key is to accompany the investigations and the prosecutions with the establishment of strong institutional support, so that authoritarian demagogues don’t exploit the moment to come to power and start a new wave of theft and mismanagement.

Brazil seems to be the cautionary tale. Hopefully, it will not be the first of many.

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