Charges of corruption are toppling leaders at a growing clip. That's a good thing for global politics.
By Thomas Carothers and Christopher Carothers | July 24, 2018
There is a striking trend in global politics: A growing number of presidents and prime ministers are being toppled before the end of their term by public anger and legal action relating to corruption. In just the last six months, corruption dominoes have fallen in countries as diverse as Armenia, Malaysia, Peru, Slovakia, South Africa, and Spain. Stepping back a bit, a startling fact deserves attention: In the past five years, more than 10 percent of countries in the world have experienced corruption-driven leadership change.
In these 21 countries, embattled leaders have either resigned, been ousted by a no-confidence vote, or been impeached or removed from office. Their alleged wrongdoings range from the relatively mild—an Icelandic prime minister seemingly trying to conceal the existence of overseas assets—to extensive influence-peddling and abuse of power for private gain. Most cases are unrelated to each other, but the 2016 release of the Panama Papers and the investigation into the Brazilian conglomerate Odebrecht have triggered political scandals in multiple countries.
Not only is corruption driving out many leaders before their time, but it is also contributing significantly to the electoral defeats of numerous incumbents. Consider the surprising defeat of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the May elections that ousted the party that had governed Malaysia continuously for more than 60 years. In the run-up to the contest, Najib’s reputation was fatally weakened by accusations that he siphoned hundreds of millions of dollars from the state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad into his personal account. In the past several years, Argentina, Benin, Costa Rica, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka have all seen incumbent candidates or parties defeated as a partial or significant result of corruption scandals.
Even where corrupt leaders are surviving the storm, protests fueled primarily or partially by corruption often shake up politics, as they have in the Czech Republic, Honduras, Iran, Malta, and elsewhere.
Corruption has become a remarkably powerful—arguably the most powerful—issue driving political change in the world today. This reality is a crucial counterpoint to the troubling idea that has emerged in the last year or two that with media manipulation, populist appeals, and restrictions on civic space, corrupt politicians are simply able do whatever they want and not pay any price for it. Citizens all over are demonstrating a growing unwillingness to put up with corrupt behavior and other forms of bad governance. By doing so, they are changing global politics for the better.
Above: Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attends a session at the lower house of parliament in Madrid on May 30. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images) Lead image, from left: South Korea’s Park Geun-hye, Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif, Spain’s Mariano Rajoy, Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff, and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma. (Chung Sung-Jun/Christopher Furlong/Pierre-Philippe Marcou/Mauro Pimentel/Felix Dlangmandia/AFP/Getty Images/Foreign Policy illustration)
Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was ousted in a no-confidence vote following allegations of slush fund-related corruption.
The appointment of then-President Serzh Sargsyan as prime minister, allowing him to evade constitutional term limits and remain in power, led to large-scale protests against the regime’s corruption and autocratic tendencies. The demonstrations forced his resignation and the end of the Republican Party’s decades-long rule.
Mauritian President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim greets guests during the annual garden party to celebrate the country’s independence in Reduit, Mauritius, on March 13. (Dev Ramkhelawon/AFP/Getty Images)
Ameenah Gurib-Fakim resigned as Mauritius’s (largely ceremonial) president over allegations she misused NGO funds provided by an Angolan businessman with investments in the country.
President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in the face of Odebrecht-related allegations of influence-peddling and conflicts of interest, as well as allegedly seeking to bribe lawmakers to prevent his impeachment.
Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico stands behind bundles of euro banknotes during a Feb. 27 press conference in Bratislava, Slovakia, on the murder case of a leading journalist who investigated high-profile tax fraud. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned after the murder of a reporter investigating tax fraud and corruption sparked public outrage.
President Jacob Zuma resigned under pressure from the public and his own party after numerous corruption accusations tarnished his administration’s image.
Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media after appearing before an anti-corruption commission at the Federal Judicial Academy in Islamabad on June 15, 2017. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was declared unfit for office by the Supreme Court after the Panama Papers leak revealed that his family held undeclared overseas investments and financial interests. In a subsequent ruling, the Supreme Court held that Sharif was barred for life from holding public office.
Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili lost a no-confidence vote in the National Assembly following widespread discontent with the government’s economic mismanagement and continued corruption. Mosisili was defeated in subsequent elections.
Ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye leaves for Seoul Central District Court from her private home in Seoul on March 30, 2017. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)
Following mass protests, President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office because of accusations of influence-peddling and other corruption. In 2018, Park was sentenced to 24 years in prison.
President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office on charges of manipulating the budget in a highly polarized political atmosphere following serious allegations of systemic corruption.
Prime Minister of Croatia Tihomir Oreskovic arrives for the European Union leaders' summit at the European Council in Brussels on Dec. 14, 2017. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic lost a no-confidence vote in Parliament following a conflict of interest scandal concerning the deputy prime minister and a Hungarian oil company.
Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned after the Panama Papers revelations showed overseas assets he had seemingly tried to hide.
Kyrgyz Prime Minister Temir Sariyev, center, reviews an honor guard with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a welcome ceremony in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on Dec. 16, 2015. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Temir Sariyev resigned after a parliamentary commission accused his administration of corruption related to bidding for government contracts.
Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned because of public anger over entrenched corruption and unresolved economic problems.
Former Prime Minister Victor Ponta exits the High Court of Cassation and Justice in Bucharest, Romania, on Nov. 6, 2015. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned following a fatal nightclub fire in a broader context of sustained anti-corruption protests against the government.
President Baldwin Lonsdale dissolved Parliament following the conviction of 14 members for bribery, including two former prime ministers. While Lonsdale remained in office, Prime Minister Sato Kilman was replaced in the following elections.
Moldovan Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet attends the European People’s Party heads of state congress in Madrid on Oct. 22, 2015. (Wiktor Dabkowski/AP)
Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet was ousted in a no-confidence vote after continued popular outrage at corruption following the arrest of former Prime Minister Vlad Filat for taking bribes, as well as a massive 2014 bank fraud case.
Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb resigned because of a corruption probe targeting the agriculture minister, as well as general poor performance in other areas of governance.
Former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina leaves Guatemala City's court after he was ordered to stand trial on corruption charges on Oct. 27, 2017. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)
President Otto Pérez Molina resigned hours after being stripped of his immunity by Congress following revelations of his involvement in a customs-related corruption scheme. Pérez Molina was subsequently arrested.
Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra faced mass protests prompted in part by a proposed amnesty law that would have dismissed her brother’s (former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) 2008 conviction for corruption. Yingluck was also investigated for corruption and mismanagement related to a public rice purchasing scheme. Yingluck was removed from office by the Constitutional Court in May 2014 for abuse of power in an unrelated matter, while the military staged a coup shortly afterwards.
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych arrives at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland on April 11, 2010, ahead of a Nuclear Security Summit. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)
President Viktor Yanukovych fled the country and was subsequently removed from office by parliament following large-scale protests triggered by Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an association agreement with the European Union, as well as general anger at the government’s corruption and mismanagement.
Prime Minister Petr Necas resigned after graft and spying allegations surfaced against his closest aide, with whom he also had a romantic relationship.
Thomas Carothers is the senior vice president for studies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
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