When Fighting Corruption Harms Democracy

Monday, February 20th, 2012


 A conflict over corruption threatens to bring down the government in Pakistan as the Supreme Court and the executive are in a standoff. Last week the court indicted Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani on contempt charges for failing to revive  corruption charges against his boss, President Asif Ali Zardari. The Pakistani military seems only too pleased to see the judiciary undercutting one of its principle political opponents. 

Many claim fighting corruption goes hand-in-hand with promoting democracy. Indeed, the Arab Spring was spurred on in part by anger over the corruption of the region’s autocratic leaders. Yet coupsin the name of good governance in recent yearssuch as in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Thailandshow that such simplistic reasoning can be dangerous to young democracies. It would pay for anti-corruption advocates and judiciaries like Pakistan’s to take note.
As many parts of the developing world are rife with corruption, it should come as no surprise that corruption charges are routinely wielded as a tool to sideline political opponents. This is true even in well-established democracies. For example, in the Indian state of Tamil Nadu, when the two dominant political parties alternate power, invariably the ascending party brings corruption charges against leaders of the other, distracting the opposition’s energy in court. But in fledgling democracies one political actor is particularly well situated to use accusations of corruption as a weapon: the military.
Given the military’s revered status in most societies, domestic politicians or international activists are reluctant to accuse the military of corruption. As a result, in the currents of public opinion, democratically elected politicians become marred as systemically corrupt. The military largely escapes such characterizations, being seen as a potential savior.
A politically motivated military can use this uneven playing field to its advantage, undermining democracy in the process. The pattern is startling. In Pakistan in 1999 General Pervez Musharraf pointed to “corruption of horrendous proportions” to help justify his military’s coup, declaring “good governance” a prerequisite to solving the country’s problems. He revitalized an anti-corruption body that quickly went to work. Corruption charges against both Nawaz Sharif and Benazir Bhutto forced them into exile. Similar charges kept Asif Ali Zadari and Yousaf Raza Gilani in jail for much of the coup. For years this strategy of sidelining opponents helped decapitate Pakistan’s major political parties, leaving Musharraf’s rule relatively unchallenged.
The story is tellingly similar in Bangladesh, when in 2007 the military took over in the face of a disputed upcoming election and the public’s exhaustion over corruption among civilian leaders. With the support of Western powers and international donors, a military-backed government set up an anti-corruption commission that brought charges against the leaders of the two main political parties in an attempt to force them into exile. Hundreds of political leaders from both parties were thrown into jail on similar accusations, until popular opinion finally turned against the coup.
Or in Thailand, where in 2006 in the face of massive street protests over disputed elections, a bloodless coup ousted Prime Minister Thaksin while he was abroad. The military reconstituted the national counter corruption commission, which then banned Thaksin and other leaders from his party from the polls. Eventually the courts convicted Thaksin of corruption keeping him from returning to the country, even after his party won elections once the military left power. 
What should we make of these experiencesof military takeover? Certainly, advocates of democracy should not become apologists for corruption out of a fear that fighting it might empower the military. After all, military leaders are able to take over in the first place because widespread corruption undercuts the case for democracy. Instead, we should recognize that leaders in the military are often corrupt too, but they avoid sustained scrutiny by anti-corruption advocates or the judiciary. This makes coups more likely.
There are no easy answers. But a few lessons may be drawn that can guide anti-corruption advocates, whether in the new democracies of the Arab Spring with politically powerful armies like Egypt, or in countries with recurring coups like Pakistan.
First, be openly skeptical of the military. Foreign powers should make clear they will not support so-calledgood governance coups. The military is often seen by Western governments as an effective way to clean up corruption and other shortcomings of civilian politicians. Yet while a Pakistani general may currently seem less corrupt than President Zardari, it does not mean that embracing the military will lead to less graft Experience tells us the opposite. The military has a poor track record of cleaning up corruption; it has a good one at stopping the cycle of elections that could eventually lead to accountability.
Second, be politically savvy. Too often anti-corruption campaigns are seen as having no political costs. One-size-fits-all anti-corruption strategies only encourage this blindness. Supporters of rankings like Transparency International’s corruption perception index tend to assume such rankings will inspire a healthy competition amongst nations to clean up corruption. They discount how they may strengthen certain groups like the military. Instead, anti-corruption activists should learn to pick the right moments, knowing when pushing too hard could do more harm than good. Nor should military corruption be ignored. If there is to be an international corruption index, it should include a separate index of military graft.
Finally, while perhaps sometimes strategically waiting to go after major civilian politicians is preferable, this does not mean one should do nothing. Instead, reforms should focus on processes, underlings, and institutions. Standardizing processes—like bidding for government contracts—to make them less susceptible to bribery and bringing low-level bureaucrats to task for graft can make an immediate tangible difference.
Empowering institutions like the judiciary and public prosecutors creates more centers of power that will pay long-run dividends. The courts in Pakistan today may be all that stand in the way of a coup (or what may ultimately allow one). No matter what one thinks the Supreme Court in Pakistan should decide regarding the corruption scandal surrounding Zardari, it is a positive development that the government’s future seems to be in its own hands, and not in the military’s.
Given the historical evidence to the contrary, we can no longer believe that all fights against corruption promote democracy. Many of these efforts are hijacked for political ends. And it is not just the military that takes advantage. In countries such as Russia, Sri Lanka and China, heavy-handed civilian leaders have selectively used corruption charges to keep their opponents in check. Anti-corruption strategies need to account for this trend. Meanwhile, claims that democratically elected leaders should be purged by a supposedly “clean” military should be seen for what they are: tired and self-serving.
Nick Robinson is a visiting fellow at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. This spring he will publish an article, coauthored with Nawreen Sattar, in the Fordham International Law Journal. The article is called "When Corruption is an Emergency: ‘Good Governance’ Coups and Bangladesh."