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World: Analysis From Washington -- Corruption And Its Consequences

  • Paul Goble

Washington, 20 October 2000 (RFE/RL) -- 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.

In a statement released on Thursday, the Berlin-based Transparency International said such payments are undermining public confidence in democratic institutions around the world -- particularly in countries making the inherently difficult transition from authoritarian political systems.

To counter this trend, the group said 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 (OECD) to prohibit such payments to political parties in foreign countries.

Transparency International Chairman Peter Eigen said that the existing OECD Convention on Combating Bribery of Foreign Public Officials unfortunately contains loopholes which allow governments and private organizations to provide funds to political parties and their leaders in foreign countries, thereby subverting "the intended impact of the Convention."

What makes "the current wave of corruption scandals" across Europe so dangerous, Eigen continued, is that many current cases are "not about personal enrichment" of those who take the money but rather "the purchase of access to policy makers," a subversion of democracy that is not even against the law in many countries or indeed the international system.

But if neither national nor international legislation addresses this phenomenon, its subversive impact on the political systems of individual countries is both obvious and large.

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.

Second, when such payments come from abroad, they may play an especially unfortunate role, not only leading domestic political figures to behave differently than they otherwise would and thus distorting the will of the people, but even to contributing to the notion that they may, by accepting such funds, be thereby betraying the interests of their own countries. .

Again in older democracies, this risk is generally quite small: the amount of foreign money that may be offered relative to that coming from domestic sources is seldom large. But in newer democracies, such funds could play a far more significant role. And even if they do not do so, the electorate may assume otherwise and lapse into passivity or hypernationalism.

And third, even if such payments are offered simply for access as Transparency International suggests is generally the case, at least some of the money involved may end in the pockets of individuals, a result that would represent corruption of the more traditional kind. In states with established anti-corruption legislation and effective judicial systems, the authorities can usually cope with such outcomes. But in countries without such arrangements, this kind of corruption can all too often undermine public confidence in public officials.

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.