Despite the international enthusiasm in support for groundbreaking anti-corruption investigations and mass mobilizations that led to the removal of former president of Guatemala Otto Perez Molina and his vice president Roxana Baldetti in 2015 over two separate corruption charges, change generally and under the administration that followed was never going to be easy. The same could be true in Brazil, Mexico and Peru where anti-corruption fever has swept in administrations of different ideological stripes promising to clean up government. So far, not only are the results not impressive, the leaders and their tactics are verging on anti-democratic.
That was always the problem with anti-corruption fever. Popular mobilization is always fleeting and as exciting, even inspiring, as it may be to see a cross section of the population take to the streets demanding accountability of leaders that long believed themselves to be above the law, it is difficult to sustain and direct it in ways that drive the structural reforms necessary to address the root causes of corruption. Similarly, heralding one single crusader—jurist or elected official—as a savior for liberating the masses of public venality, risks placing hopes only in one agent (an individual or an office). But many of those individuals have their own political and sometimes corrupt, or even sometimes psychological issues that drive their assumption of the mantle of anti-corruption messiahs.
Take Guatemala. The wave of popular disgust that led to Perez Molina’s removal also led to the election of outsider candidate and former comedian Jimmy Morales under the slogan “ni corrupto, ni ladrón” (neither corrupt, nor a thief). Side note, for any of those who have seen his silly and at times racist comedy skits “ni chistoso” (nor funny) should have also been added to his catchy, though ultimately untrue slogan. Now after four years in office it turns out that in addition to not being funny, Morales was indeed corrupt, or at least his family and inner circle is. And if you count attacking the independence of the judiciary and undermining independent investigatory bodies—in this case the UN sponsored CICIG, that exposed the Perez Molina scam and dozens more—then he himself is also very “corrupto.” Since 2018, Morales’ government has prevented the respected Colombian jurist Iván Velásquez Gómez, who heads CICIG, from returning to Guatemala and it’s possible that the government will refuse to renew the mandate of CICIG later this year. Oh yeah, and those people that took to the streets to protest corruption and demand more responsive politics have dissipated, consumed now by more immediate problems. They would have always been difficult to harness for the long-haul institutional reforms required to effectively root out corruption and create a clean(er) government.
Then there’s Brazil. In the wake of the Lava Jato crisis and public disgust with the corruption that has lubricated politics and vote getting in the country, voters rejected the traditional political class and turned instead to an outsider former army captain with few political successes and an even more troubling political outlook toward matters of policing, women, Afro-descendants and the LGBTI+ community. But this is what popular revulsion over corruption and rejection of a political class can bring with it. And Brazilian citizens are not alone. According to Vanderbilt University’s 2017 LAPOP surveys, nearly 80 percent of Latin American citizens believe half or more of their politicians are corrupt. In other words, as corruption fever spreads expect more outsider candidates.
Enter Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) in Mexico. Elected overwhelmingly in 2018 largely on the basis of a campaign that depicted himself as a messianic figure who alone could address Mexico’s endemic corruption, AMLO offered few details on the legal, regulatory or structural steps he planned to take. Instead, he himself was the embodiment of self-righteousness, he and his anti-corruption purity were the answer to all of Mexico’s ills, inequality, impunity, poverty, slow economic growth, etc. As my colleague Victoria Gaytan has written, “The manner in which the president has decided to carry out this battle—unilaterally, with complete disregard for the proposals of past administrations, and with tactics that exceed the powers allowed the executive by the Constitution—turns this into a personal campaign that polarizes an already tired and frustrated population. Worse, AMLO’s maneuvering seems to directly undermine the incipient democratic system whose mechanisms and counterweights allowed him to rise to power.” Exactly.
Now there is the case of interim President Martin Vizcarra in Peru. The former vice president assumed the presidency when his predecessor, Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, resigned over… wait for it… corruption allegations. Vizcarra has now presented an anti-corruption bill to the unicameral Peruvian congress. Among other things, the bill would allow the Supreme Court to withdraw immunity of congressional representatives and prohibit individuals who have been convicted in court from running for office. All sounds good, right? But in the face of the Congress’ refusal to pass it, Vizcarra is threatening to dissolve the national legislative body. According to several scholars, the Peruvian constitution grants the executive the power to call new legislative elections if Congress has “censured or denied its confidence to two Cabinets.” But even if nominally constitutional, dissolving an elected body for its refusal to pass a bill sets a dangerous and potentially anti-democratic precedent.
And yet, oddly, some anti-corruption hawks are applauding the threat. Stop here, though, and insert another bill or issue in this sentence, “Unless the Congress passes this [anti-abortion bill, land-seizure bill, new tax bill, plan to build a border wall… oh, wait skip that last one] I will exercise my constitutional authority to dissolve the national legislature.” In any other context this would be seen with justified concern. But somehow anti-democratic actions are seen as potentially legitimate all in the name of battling the scourge of corruption, especially when popular opinion agrees.
None of these cases individually spell the end of democracy. But they do threaten the erosion of checks and balances on executive power and raise the specter of plebiscitary democracy all in the name of anti-corruption. Yes, addressing corruption is essential for the region’s economies, democracies and stability. But focusing on it while excluding other issues such as the accumulation of executive power and the political ambitions of those who present themselves as the answer to public venality is a very dangerous road.