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Anti-corruption needs mobilising global sentiment

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13th-Aug-2017       
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John Feffer :
In democracies, corruption works in a similar way. The opposition slams the ruling party for all the ways it uses the levers of government power to benefit its clientele.
In autocracies, aspiring, young functionaries endure all manner of indignities. They must pay deference to the country's leader. They must mouth all sorts of propagandistic nonsense. But they know that they, too, will eventually benefit from the system. The riches that the autocrat is extracting from the country will some day flow to these underlings as well, as a reward for their loyalty.
In democracies, corruption works in a similar way. The opposition slams the ruling party for all the ways it uses the levers of government power to benefit its clientele. But then the opposition takes over and all that past criticism disappears.
Suddenly, the former opposition discovers the perks of power. It has its own clientele to satisfy. And the cycle continues.
Currently the world is experiencing a wave of illiberal leaders, elected democratically but ruling autocratically: Russia's Vladimir Putin, Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary's Viktor Orban, the Philippines' Rodrigo Duterte, Venezuela's Nicolas Maduro, India's Narendra Modi, Japan's Shinzo Abe, and, of course, the US's Donald Trump.
Some of these illiberal leaders may flame out - like Trump.
But the others will try every conceivable means to cling to power. Some resort to these methods even as they maintain high levels of popularity. But illiberal democrats all have an Achilles' heel. The corruption that solidifies their base and provides money for their electioneering coffers is also what might bring them down. Will an anti-corruption revolution usher out the current era of right-wing populism and herald a new stage of democratic politics?
At the bottom of the list of 176 countries on Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions index are failed or near-failing states: Afghanistan, Libya, Yemen, Somalia. But at #166, tied with Iraq but below Haiti, Zimbabwe, and Eritrea, is Venezuela. The only other Latin American country that comes close is Nicaragua at #145.
Venezuela should be a wealthy country. As recently as 2008, it enjoyed on paper the highest GDP per capita in all of Latin America. So, why is the country now facing widespread food shortages, skyrocketing inflation, and the largest peacetime contraction of an economy since World War II?
At the heart of the problem is corruption. Venezuelan leader Nicolas Maduro calls his system of governance "socialist," and mainstream newspapers dutifully follow suit. But Venezuela is actually a corruptocracy. According to the National Assembly's Comptroller's Commission, corrupt officials have looted public institutions to the tune of $70 billion.
Protesters have taken to the streets to chase one corrupt government after another around the continent. In Brazil in 2016, millions of people demonstrated in 326 cities all over the country against the government of Dilma Rousseff.  In a spillover from the Brazilian corruption probes, all three Peruvian presidents from the last 15 years are now being investigated for graft.
In Guatemala, both President Otto Perez Molina and Vice-President Roxana Baldetti were ousted from office in 2015 and jailed over corruption charges.
 Last year, investigations by the country's attorney general Thelma Aldana revealed an even more disturbing picture of how the state had been captured. Major corruption scandals have hit the leaders of Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Honduras, Panama, and Mexico. Citizens throughout the continent are beginning to make the connection between corruption and a deterioration in their own standard of living.
Globally, the current role model for illiberal democrats is Vladimir Putin.The Russian president has been in power for an astonishing 17 years. He has rebuilt the Russian economy in ways that benefit himself and his extended entourage.
He has partially restored Russia's geopolitical influence. But he wants more. He aspires to fatally weaken the liberal democratic values that threaten his governance and spark an illiberal revolution that can spread westward through such vehicles as Marine Le Pen's National Front in France.
With his currently high approval ratings, Putin would seem to have a lock on power. In June, however, thousands took to the streets in Moscow and other Russian cities to decry the extraordinary wealth accumulated by Putin's corruptocrats.
Anti-corruption is a powerful mobilising sentiment. It fuses anger over economic inequality, lack of political accountability, and frustration over breaches of the rule of law. It expands street protests beyond a handful of committed activists.
The populism that has produced leaders in Poland, Hungary, Slovakia, Russia, Turkey, and other parts of Eurasia is all about the clientelism. Insurgent populists rail against outsiders buying up domestic factories or controlling the financial sector. What they don't say is that those "local hands" are in fact their own.
Anti-corruption fights aren't just about injecting more transparency into the existing system. They're not just about re-establishing the rule of law. Increasingly, these struggles are about the deeply flawed nature of the current system of political economy.
The pushback against Putin, Erdogan, Abe, Maduro, and yes, even Trump, points toward a new kind of politics and a new kind of economics. Illiberal democrats imagine that they are the most advanced species in the evolution of democratic capitalism.
Anti-corruption campaigns may not only prove them wrong by sending them to jail but lead to new, revolutionary ways of organising society to divorce, once and for all, wealth and politics.

(John Feffer is the director of Foreign Policy In Focus and the author of the novel Splinterlands.  Courtesy: -The Wire)

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