HSE University Anti-Corruption Portal
Anti-Corruption in “De-Democratising” Regimes

The Anti-Corruption Resource Centre (U4) has published a report on the anti-corruption measures in the countries that are backsliding from the path of democracy to authoritarianism. 

The assertion that the regime type matters for the fight against corruption is not new: it is political leaders that very often hamper anti-corruption reforms, as the latter frequently pose a threat to those who only “benefit” from corruption.

Consequently, anti-corruption activities in the context of different political regimes have their specific features:

  • in fully consolidated democracies, corruption, as a rule, is sporadic, occurring when gaps in integrity systems are exploited, which allows for concentrating the effort on refining laws to close loopholes and on investigation and enforcement;
  • in democratising regimes, the necessary political will to restrict corruption is already in place,however they may be limited in their action by the corrupt structures created during the former regimes;
  • in the states that were once democratic or unambiguously democratizing but are now sliding backwards, the rise to power of undemocratic leaders makes effective anti-corruption mechanisms start working for the benefit of potential autocrats;
  • in authoritarian regimes, anti-corruption aimed at petty bureaucratic misdeeds can be effectively implemented only if it boosts the legitimacy of the ruler, whereas efforts aimed at curbing political corruption are fended off;
  • finally, in fragile states, where government capacity is very limited, corruption is used to maintain stability among rival factions thereby keeping the country from civil war and regime failure.

The U4 report is focused on the countries where the change of leadership and elites brings about the regime change making these countries veer away from the path of democratisation. Over the recent years, the number of such de-democratising countries has grown: according to the latest reports from the Varieties of Democracy Institute (V-Dem) democracy declined in 26 countries during the decade ending in 2019 and broke down completely in six of them. As a result, there are now more autocracies than democracies in the world for the first time since 2001.

The authors of the report stress that these countries often stop taking effective measures to counter corruption with their anti-corruption efforts becoming increasingly sham; furthermore, certain measures, taken for the benefit of the regime, are disguised as anti-corruption initiatives, while existing anti-corruption instruments are used against the unwelcome.

At the same time, the analysis of the processes that de-democratising countries undergo may turn out to be useful for two main reasons:

  • the possibility to timely identify de-democratising political regimes;
  • the need to employ specific measures to prevent corruption in de-democratising regimes due to the ineffectiveness of conventional anti-corruption instruments. 

The process of de-democratisation can be roughly divided into three stages, each of which can be associated with a considerable corruption component: 

1)  Undermining stakeholders

In the first stage of de-democratisation, the autocrat seeks to reduce as much as possible the influence of key stakeholders on the course of elections – political opposition, the businesses that sponsor its campaigns, the media. Although they are often pressurised by intimidation and violence, yet another way for future leaders to ensure support / reduce competition is to buy the stakeholders off: offer leading public positions, favours, perks and money to them in exchange for their support or neutrality. In Nigeria in 2019, for instance, opposition leaders saw corruption charges dropped when they switched over from the opposition to the ruling party during the presidential campaign.

Populist promises to eradicate corruption in the countries where the government has failed to do so are another way to undercut the countervailing forces: such mottos have considerable impact on citizens that are tired of empty promises. Sometimes, after a new leader is elected, such promises develop into a demonstrative fight against corrupt elites, which in practice is simply aimed at eliminating political opponents. In Pakistan for instance, after the military coup against the “corrupt” civilian government General Pervez Musharraf who came to power established the National Accountability Bureau and special corruption courts to fight against ousted political leaders. 

2)  Politicising the state apparatus

The election of an authoritarian leader is followed by a second stage of de-democratisation which implies the building of loyal infrastructure: to this end, friends within the state administration, the judiciary and law enforcement are bought, “unruly” or “problematic” heads of these institutions are dismissed and cronies, friends, and family members are nominated to these offices. 

In parallel, the promotion of the undisputed power of the new leader may be launched by holding liable all dissidents for corruption offences or through the use of other domestic anti-corruption instruments against them. In Uganda for example, the anti-corruption commission has been used to curb the opposition: it was charged with compiling extensive registers of interests, but the registry was consuming disproportionate resources and impossible to maintain, whereas the registration rarely led to any enforcement of regulations (it is noteworthy that the activities of the commission were almost entirely financed by international financial aid).

The newly-elected leader can use corruption charges “positively” first holding certain people liable and then “pardoning” them. In Nigeria for instance, there is a long list of current and former ruling party officials, governors, parliamentarians, and financers, charged and sentenced for corruption, who have been granted presidential pardons. 

3)  Rewriting the “rules of the game” 

Having cemented his power, the elected authoritarian leader can start “re-tailoring” the domestic legislation to protect himself and those linked to him. In most cases this brings about amendments to the electoral law, the Constitution etc., bribery of functionaries of the election commission or inclusion therein loyal persons, which permits the newly elected national leader and the ruling party to remain in power as long as possible. For example, appointments to the Bangladesh Election Commission have been systematically based on political considerations, calling into question the Commission’s impartiality; in Kenya, officials of the Independent Elections and Boundary Commission have reportedly been bought. 

There can also be more “sophisticated” methods for retaining the positions, for instance, setting up of new political parties loyal to the regime with names similar to the main opposition to create confusion, buying of the electorate, bribery of the election commission and the functionaries.

The process of de-democratisation as such can obviously take place with no corruption component. However, the rise to power of an authoritarian leader, as the examples of many countries prove, is accompanied by a considerable risk of him using corruption as a means for retaining power. 

Consequently, the authors of the report call on anti-corruption practitioners and international organisations to consider developing strategies to slow down / arrest the processes of de-democratisation: in this context the adoption of anti-corruption measures can play an important role in preventing the backsliding to total autocracy. 

To inform the relevant strategies, the U4 experts recommend sticking to the following principles:

1)  Understand the context 

Like corrupt practices, the erosion of democratic institutions can be pursued surreptitiously, in ways that escape public attention. This is why the adoption of anti-corruption measures in de-democratising regimes should start with the analysis of the current situation, which includes three stages.

First, the groups and actors pursuing de-democratisation and the forms of corruption instrumentalised by them, if present, must be identified. This incorporates an analysis of the three stages described above to better understand what stage the process is currently in and what might come next. 

Second, it is necessary to identify which public institutions are not yet captured and still retain some integrity.

Third, it is needed to identify possible resistance to de-democratisation, which may include groups that are being extorted or excluded or are losing out in other ways because of the pressure of the new government.

2)  Provide reinforcement of non-politicised structures

Once the institutions that have succumbed to pressure, under pressure and likely to fall next and those remaining resilient against capture are identified, the next step is to consider urgent reinforcement of the institutions that have not yet been hijacked.

Particular attention should be paid to parliament, the judiciary, and institutions of oversight and control like ombuds offices, supreme audit institutions, anti-corruption commissions, and anti-corruption courts that are empowered to undertake legal checks or provide information vital for constraining potential seizure of power.

Some countries have been successful in stemming the anti-democratic tide through the resilience of institutions. Malawi is a good example, as the country was considered vulnerable due to the passing of presidential power from the president to his younger brother. Then, with increasingly limited space for the media, the politicisation of the civil service, and uncontrolled political corruption Malawi’s Constitutional Court nullified the blatantly manipulated results of the 2019 elections (dubbed the “Tipp-Ex election” due to the signs of the fluid corrector of the same name left on ballots) and demanded a rerun; other state institutions then followed up and implemented the ruling, with the result that the opposition won the general elections; now, the former president is under investigation for corruption.

3)  Support collective action

At the early stages, when elected leaders are still dependent on public opinion, the publication of bribery and corruption cases that involve them might be effective to counter de-democratisation: corruption scandals often spur large popular protests that defy the regime and sometimes even cause the fall of governments.

This is why the authors assert that the next step should be the mobilisation of groups against de-democratisers. To build collective action capacity, conventional approaches, such as funding NGOs, social accountability measures, or awareness campaigns, may be inefficient in de-democratising regimes and need to change. This means investing in a free press and digital media, creating spaces where civil society can interact, providing protections to protestors and whistle-blowers, and providing political support to uphold human rights. 

4)  Be flexible

Anti-corruption strategies especially in the context of the “unlawful” processes of de-democratisation must be flexible and adapt to rapidly changing circumstances. This means that opportunities for pushback may appear unexpectedly.

At the same time, an intelligent and context-specific design of interventions is needed as the injection of development funds may often create new venues for corruption and even increase the levels of corruption. As a consequence, the development of relevant strategies will require almost daily updating of the analysis and the strategic options. 

Political context

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