Does democracy breed corruption - particularly in developing countries?
There are strong advocates of the theory. And strong detractors.
Some studies conclude that democracy aggravates corruption. For instance, noted scholar of public policy Jong-Sung You's work explores the relationships between democracy, inequality and corruption. He showsin a study of three East Asian countries that democracy can worsen corruption when a country has high levels of inequality. This, in turn, increases clientelism and patronage politics and state capture.
Other studies show that democracy can help combat corruption. One study by academic Michael Rock, using data from multiple countries shows that corruption initially increased following democratisation. But that it declined later as the age of democracy increases - the turning point is between 10 to 12 years.
This 'age of democracy' theory indicates that as democracy gets older, it allows time for the rule of law to be strengthened and transparent and accountable institutions to take hold which are capable of controlling corruption.
Ghana provides an interesting case study. It has been a democracy for the last 29 years. At the same time, corruption remains a monumental challenge.
In a recent paper I explored the issue. I interviewed Ghanaian politicians, academics, anti-corruption activists, and journalists about whether democracy fuels corruption in Ghana.
A fifth of those interviewed argued that democracy fuels corruption in Ghana while about 80% disagreed. But most believed that the way democracy is practised is to blame for corruption - not democracy itself.
My study does not suggest there is less corruption in a dictatorship compared to democracy. Instead, I conclude that corruption is still prevalent in Ghana 29 years after democratic elections because the country has a flawed democracy. There has been a failure to establish and implement robust accountability mechanisms to control corruption effectively.
Democracy fuels corruption
My study drew on 25 in-depth interviews with politicians, academics, anti-corruption activists and media personnel. A number of arguments were put forward by the 20% who believe that democracy leads to more corruption. One was that democracy allows some people to gain power and amass illegitimate wealth without consequences.
A politician said:
Others commented that politicians who win power through the polls loot state coffers to pay off past campaign expenses, finance future elections, and accumulate wealth for future use should they lose power.
This group also reported that political parties in power often shielded their corrupt members to protect party reputation and boost electability. This resulted in impunity.
Some also argued that securing justice in Ghana's democratic system was hard to achieve. This allowed lawlessness and corruption to thrive.
As another politician said:
This points to the fact that the rule of law and checks and balances in government are weak.
Democracy isn't the problem
A range of arguments were put forward among the 80% who believed democracy could not be blamed for persistent corruption. In their view, democracy has helped promote information flow, shedding more light on corruption than in authoritarian regimes.
A media practitioner said:
A political scientist and anti-corruption activist put it this way:
The fact that democratic freedoms had facilitated information flow and shed light on corruption had created an erroneous impression that democracy fuelled corruption more than authoritarian regimes.
The practice is what counts
In response to the question on whether democracy has helped fuel corruption in Ghana, one respondent, a political science scholar, said:
Another interviewee commented:
Other participants commented that monetisation of elections and the lack of transparency in political party funding produced corrupt leaders. This made it difficult to combat corruption.
Also, according to interviewees, Ghana's 1992 constitution provided insufficient checks and balances. For example, the electoral system enables a winner-takes-all politics in which the group, or party, that wins at the polls (and their allies) are able to monopolise resources.
For democracy to reduce corruption, several measures are needed. These views echo arguments made by scholars Landry Signe and Koiffi Korha.
Research participants emphasised addressing extreme executive power while strengthening the rule of law and horizontal accountability institutions. These include the legislature, the judiciary, and auditing and anti-corruption bodies.
Participants also recommended sustained public pressure on whoever is in power to ensure political commitment to combating corruption.
Author: Joseph Yaw Asomah - Assistant Professor, University of Manitoba