Corruption and its consequences

  • 2000-10-26
  • Paul Goble
Under-the-table payments to political parties from both domestic and foreign sources increasingly corrupt the political process, according to a research group that tracks corruption around the world.

The Berlin-based Transparency International said that such payments are undermining public confidence in democratic institutions around the world but particularly in countries making the inherently difficult transition from authoritarian political systems.

To counter this trend, the group said that it plans to make the reform of political party funding the central focus of its work. And it called on the members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development to prohibit such payments to political parties in foreign countries.

First of all, such payments to political parties for access to decision making undermines democratic arrangements by allowing wealth rather than the ballot to determine political outcomes. At the very least, this pattern breeds cynicism about governments which proclaim themselves to be democratic and quite often it raises questions about whether democracy is in fact a sustainable political system.

In countries which have been democratic for an extended period, most people are able to put reports of such corruption in context, seeing them as blemishes on an otherwise good record of governance. But in countries without these democratic traditions, such payments often appear to be a defining characteristic of the new system, a view that some leaders have sought to exploit to justify a return to authoritarianism.

Transparency International quite clearly has identified a serious problem, one that appears to cry out for international action. But if the problem is obvious, the solutions are not. On the one hand, it remains far from clear whether there is any way to prevent such transfers and whether the kind of efforts Transparency International proposes would do anything more than drive this process even further underground.

And on the other, there may be cases where a foreign government will conclude that it is appropriate to aid parties in other countries that are committed to democracy but that find themselves running against regimes that practice ethnic cleansing or engage in aggression.

Such possibilities mean that crafting both international agreements and national legislation will be extremely difficult, but the Transparency International report suggests that the failure to do so may mean that corruption will become an ever greater threat to democracy not only in those places where that system is putting down roots but in others where it has long been established.