Dr. Petra Schleiter and Alisa Voznaya
When Indian and Brazilian citizens took to the streets this year in anti-corruption demonstrations, they were seeking to re-establish control over their politicians and to remedy the widespread failure of governing and opposition parties to address endemic corruption.
Geovernmental corruption - grand and petty forms of theft, bribery and rent-seeking by public officials - is strikingly common in democracies around the world. This raises a host of questions: Why does democratic competition sometimes fail to curb malfeasance? Why can elections help corrupt politicians to power? Why do voters often fail to punish corrupt incumbents?
These questions are so perplexing because electoral competition should in principle allow voters to select clean politicians and to replace representatives who fail to curb corruption. Survey after survey, both globally and in specific countries, show that voters are deeply concerned about corruption and it is not surprising that they care. In every democracy of the world, looting the public purse is a crime and its corrosive effects are plain. Corruption damages growth and development. It undermines the effectiveness of aid, squanders national wealth, distorts markets and competition, drives away investment, and accentuates social inequality. But corruption also fouls up the politics of countries. The cost of corruption is not just the cost of bribes. Bribes go to fund political ambitions and careers; they finance election campaigns, pay for patronage networks, and attract crooks into politics. Across a range of democracies in
When democracies fail their citizens in this way, party systems are often at the root of the problem. Governmental corruption is a public policy outcome for which politicians are in principle accountable - they may invest resources to fight it, or tolerate it and possibly even engage in it. Informed voters, who can enforce accountability, can give powerful incentives to their politicians to mitigate corruption. But often party systems make it difficult for voters to make informed and effective choices at the ballot box. Three party system features in particular affect the capacity of voters to control their representatives - party system institutionalisation, competitiveness and the existence of programmatically structured (rather than clientelistic) competition.
The level of institutionalisation distinguishes the party systems of most advanced industrial democracies from many recently democratised countries. In institutionalised systems, parties have societal roots and organisational stability, party labels and reputations are informative, and voters can use them as reliable shortcuts in distinguishing good and bad types of politicians. Contrast this with poorly institutionalised party systems like that of
Equally important in combating corruption is the competitiveness of the party system because it shapes the opportunities for citizens to cast a meaningful vote against the incumbent. Competitiveness can suffer when there is too little or too much competition. The former situation characterises many of the new African democracies, in which the parties that led the independence or democratisation struggles have established a degree of electoral hegemony that in itself presents formidable barriers to any meaningful opposition challenge. In the 2009 Namibian general elections, for instance, President Hifikepunye Pohamba and his
The third party system feature - whether party competition is programmatically structured - has similarly powerful consequences for the ability of voters to control their politicians. Where party competition is programmatic, politicians compete on the basis of policy commitments, which voters use to select their representatives and to assess their performance. In clientelistic systems like those of
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Copyright 2011, The World Today, Published by Chatham House in London