Corruption – is there a cure?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Protesters turns up their cell-phones to light up a makeshift EU star, during a protest in front of the government headquarters in Bucharest, Romania on 26 February 2017. Thousands of people gathered to express their distrust in the government. [EPA/ROBERT GHEMENT]

Curbing corruption is not a quick-fix and there is no single universal cure for it. However, there is more hope than ever that the endemic spread of corruption can be contained and ultimately reduced, argues Adina Turk.

Adina Trunk is a programme officer at International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA). Trunk has previously worked with political parties and democracy development as a manager for the Eastern Europe programme at the party-affiliated organization KIC Sweden.

How corrupt can a politician be before they should be considered a criminal? In Romania’s case, the answer is quite clear: 200,000 Euros.

According to a draft bill adopted by the lower house of Parliament earlier this month, abuse of office would no longer be considered a criminal offence if the sums involved were less than 200,000 Euros. In one of the European Union’s poorest and most corrupt countries, where the average monthly salary is below 500 Euros (net), this bill was the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Almost half a million people, both in the capital and other cities, braved the bitter winter weather to protest against proposals which critics say could jeopardize Romania’s rule of law and dismantle democracy. It is not the first time Romanians have taken to the streets to show their indignation about how politicians misuse their power.

In the past two years, the country has been shaken by several large anti-corruption protests, leading to temporary and short-lived victories for the protesters. In effect, however, these laws, attempting to amend the penal code to help corrupted politicians to escape justice were slightly revised and re-tabled, leading to a groundhog-day feeling amongst the protesters this winter.

Sadly enough, Romania’s path is not an exception, from a global and a historical perspective. Data from International IDEA’s new Global State of Democracy (GSoD) Indices covering 155 countries between 1975-2015 show that reducing levels of corruption has proven to be the most difficult task for democracies around the world.

Moreover, the indices show that whilst most other democratic aspects such as representative government, fundamental rights and participatory engagement have improved in the past 40 years, corruption levels have remained the same since 1975, in spite of more efforts being made to curb this development. Implementing the rule of law in public administration tends to be difficult to change both in the short and medium terms.

This could partially explain the dissatisfaction with democracy seen in many electoral democracies emerging after 1975 (Source: International IDEA, The Global State of Democracy, 2017).

Corruption scandals affect perceptions of democracy. They cause citizens to lose trust in political parties, politicians, and institutions and inspire protest and deep indignation. In addition, recurring corruption undermines the integrity of the political system by making it vulnerable to capture by counterparts offering so-called “big money”.

This further increases the perception of politics as a method for self-enrichment for the existing elite, leaving even more people with a sense of despair, disillusionment, and disappointment.

“Big money” also provides a disproportionate advantage to a selected few, undermines effective public service delivery, and creates an uneven playing field especially for women and marginalized groups. When large bank accounts are needed to participate in elections or to hold prominent positions in a party, the system will benefit the existing elite, thereby widening the gap between the elected and the electorate.

And when the ones in power propose new laws to further protect their way of life, not only is trust lost, but also hope – hope that the democratic system could be a warrant against corruption and misuse of power. In addition, current measures to combat these problems often fall short, since they have a limited scope and the institutions that are supposed to enforce them are limited with constraints, while political parties face little accountability.

So, what is needed to curb corruption, restore trust and protect democracy? Instead of constantly adding to the number of mechanisms, actors and legal restrictions to curb corruption, a wider, holistic approach, focusing on the most effective solutions, should be considered.

The integrity of democratic politics should be protected throughout the political cycle and on a permanent basis. This includes mechanisms for political competition that focus on public official vulnerabilities to corruption, such as conflict of interest, lobbying, bank and tax secrecy rules, parliamentary immunity norms, protections for whistleblowers and the freedom of the press.

This more holistic approach should include a combination of improved anti-corruption mechanisms, new oversight instruments led by a variety of social and political actors, and enhanced political party regulations.

In addition, improved anti-money laundering systems, a vibrant civil society, a media that can effectively function as a watchdog, and crowdfunding efforts to raise many small donations as a counterbalance to big money, could all be effective actions.

In Europe, it has become increasingly evident that corruption levels should play a greater role both pre- and post-accession to the European Union. Current efforts to make anti-corruption reform in the Western Balkans a key requirement for EU accession are a case in point but similar requirements should also be put in place for already existing EU members.

Corruption levels could, for example, be linked to EU-members possibility to access or be eligible for EU funds or grants. GRECO’s evaluations could serve as a source of monitoring in this regard as well as corruption levels measured by indexes such as “The Global State of Democracy Indices”.

The European Parliament could support national parliaments to enhance their capacity for oversight over state spending, for example by setting up peer-to-peer exchanges and capacity building between national parliaments.  In addition, the European Commission, member states and international organizations could continue to support initiatives and independent organizations that aim to curb the opportunities for corruption, increase transparency and reveal misuse of funds.

Curbing corruption is not a quick-fix and there is no single universal cure for it. By combining the most effective treatments, however, there is more hope than ever that the endemic spread of corruption can be contained and ultimately reduced. There is a chance for both hope and trust to re-appear in society, leaving fewer people with the sentiment that the only solution is to take to the streets shivering in the winter cold.

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