Corruption and social inequality are reinforcing each other around the world, leading to popular disenchantment with political establishments, an anticorruption watchdog group said on January 25 as it released its annual corruption index.
More than two-thirds of the 176 countries on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index 2016 scored below 50 on a scale ranging from zero, perceived to be highly corrupt, to 100, perceived to be very clean.
This year, more countries declined in the index than improved, showing the need for "urgent action," the Berlin-based group said.
People are increasingly turning to "populist leaders who promise to break the cycle of corruption and privilege," Transparency said, warning that "this is likely to only exacerbate the issue."
"In countries with populist or autocratic leaders, we often see democracies in decline and a disturbing pattern of attempts to crack down on civil society, limit press freedom, and weaken the independence of the judiciary," said Transparency Chairman Jose Ugaz.
The watchdog said both Hungary and Turkey, "countries that have seen the rise of autocratic leaders," have slipped in the corruption rankings in recent years.
"In contrast, the score of Argentina, which has ousted a populist government, is starting to improve," it added.
Antiestablishment parties are regularly drawing links between a "corrupt elite" and the marginalization of working people, but they generally failed to address corruption once in office, Transparency’s research chief Finn Heinrich wrote in a blog post.
"In the case of Donald Trump, the first signs of such a betrayal of his promises are already there," Heinrich added, saying the U.S. president was talking about "rolling back key anticorruption legislation and ignoring potential conflicts of interest that will exacerbate, not control, corruption."
According to Transparency, big corruption cases like those involving Brazil’s oil giant Petrobras and former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych showed how national revenues were being "siphoned off to benefit the few at the expense of the many," fueling "social exclusion."
To break the circle between corruption and the unequal distribution of power and wealth in societies, the group said, governments should stop the revolving door between business leaders and high-ranking government positions.
It also called for greater controls on banks and other companies that helped launder money and moves to ban firms that hide the identities of their real owners.
The Corruption Perceptions Index covers perceptions of public-sector corruption in 176 countries.
Denmark and New Zealand perform best with scores of 90, closely followed by Finland (89) and Sweden (88).
The United States ranked 18th, down from 16th in 2016, with a perceived corruption score of 74.
The worst performers included Somalia (10), South Sudan (11), North Korea (12), and Syria (13).
Afghanistan moved up four points in its score (15), which is nearly double from 2013 (8). However, the country is still one of the 10 most-corrupt countries on the index, ranking 169th.
"The National Unity Government has made over 50 commitments to address corruption, promising change to the people of Afghanistan," Transparency said. "There has been some progress. The Anti-Corruption Justice Center held its first trials on large-scale and high-profile corruption cases, and the National Law on Procurement was enacted."
The report said that "a culture of impunity prevails among politicians, prosecutors, and oligarchs" in countries in the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) region.
Russia fell down 12 places in the index to rank 131st -- tied with Ukraine, Kazakhstan, and Iran.
Ukraine showed a minor improvement by 2 points on this year’s index, which the report said can be attributed to a new electronic database that allows Ukrainians to see the assets of senior civil servants.
However, cases involving allegations of corruption by former President Viktor Yanukovych and his associates are currently stalled due to "systemic problems in the judicial system," it said.
In the Western Balkans, Transparency attributed "weaknesses in law enforcement to 'captured' political systems in which politicians wield enormous influence on all walks of public life, while being close to wealthy private businessmen or even organized crime networks."
Kosovo, ranked 95th, was the worst performer in the region, followed by Macedonia (90th), Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina (83rd), Serbia (72nd), and Montenegro (64th).
With reporting by Reuters