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A street cleaner walks past a poster promoting Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra and his anti-corruption proposals. A street cleaner walks past a poster promoting Peruvian President Martin Vizcarra and his proposed reforms aimed at tackling corruption, in Lima, Peru, June 4, 2019 (AP photo by Martin Mejia).

Corruption Is Corroding Democracies Around the World

Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019

The world is constantly reminded that corruption knows no geographic boundaries. In South Africa, former President Jacob Zuma is embroiled in an inquiry into whether he ran a patronage system that drained money from the country’s treasury. A money laundering investigation launched in Brazil in 2008 expanded to take down a vast network of politicians and business leaders across Central and South America. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration has been plagued by officials who have used their offices for private gain and been forced to resign.

The impact of actual corruption is devastating, whether it siphons money from public use or drives policy that is not in the public interest. The effects can be particularly pernicious in developing countries, where budgets are tight and needs are vast. The United Nations estimates that corruption costs $2.6 trillion in losses every year.

But even the perception of corruption is dangerous, undermining people’s faith in government institutions, a phenomenon that is helping to drive a crisis of democracy worldwide. In Transparency International’s latest Corruption Perceptions Index, most governments are seen as corrupt by their own citizens. The rise of populist governments in particular poses challenges. By their nature, populists tend to define themselves against a corrupt elite, which then allows them to weaken institutions and divert attention from their own use of the levers of power to enrich themselves.

WPR has covered corruption in detail and continues to examine key questions about future developments. What role will Trump’s failed promise to “drain the swamp” play in upcoming U.S. elections? Will corruption prompt more electoral backlashes around the world? Will high expectations lead to popular disenchantment when anti-corruption efforts fail? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.

Our Most Recent Coverage

An Unprecedented Constitutional Crisis Divides Peru. But Who Is to Blame?

There is no shortage of high-stakes, bitter political battles across the globe today. Few, though, can compete with the drama unfolding now in Peru, where a standoff between the president and the opposition-controlled Congress has suddenly erupted into an unprecedented constitutional crisis. At its heart is the country’s pervasive culture of corruption.

The Politics of Corruption

Whether in electoral backlashes or popular protests, voters increasingly make their outrage over corruption known. Whether or not they succeed in bringing down tainted governments and leaders depends on a number of factors, ranging from domestic institutions to international support.

The Challenge of Tackling Corruption

As recent revelations of massive corruption have made the issue a high priority for voters, politicians have been quick to capitalize on the appeal of anti-corruption rhetoric on the campaign trail. But once in office, the obstacles to effectively tackling corruption can prove to be persistent, often leading to unfulfilled expectations.

The Backlash Against Anti-Corruption Efforts

In some cases, success in tackling corruption can create its own problems. As entrenched elites find themselves in the crosshairs of effective investigators, they often fight back to protect their ill-gotten privileges. The results can leave institutions weakened and voters disillusioned.

The Potential Abuses of Anti-Corruption Efforts

Because corruption is universally considered a scourge, it is often easy to mobilize public opinion against it. But that can allow ruthless political leaders to use anti-corruption efforts to purge rivals or crack down on dissent, particularly in authoritarian countries.

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Editor’s note: This article was originally published in July 2019 and is regularly updated.