Thursday, February 18, 2010

Corrupt Yet So Popular

It is quite surprising a phenomenon to witness how that in many countries around the world corrupt leaders often retain public support.

In a recent poll conducted in the Philippines, the late fromer president Corazon Aquino was rated highest by her countrymen among their most loved political leaders (no surprise there), but the man she toppled in a bloodless revolution, Ferdinand Marcos ranked second.

Following in fourth place was the actor turned politician former president Joseph Estrada who was ousted and convicted for his involvement in illegal racketeering. The latter two figured in the top ten most corrupt leaders of the world compiled by the corruption watchdog Transparency International.

The man who topped that list, Mr Suharto, the late former dictator of Indonesia is still widely held in good esteem by his countrymen despite what current media reports suggest about the successful drive against corruption there. What makes these crooked leaders so well-loved among their poor countrymen long after their demise? Is it their charisma? Perhaps. Is it a sense of nostalgia? For what? Is there something that these corrupt leaders attend to quite effectively that honest leaders fail to do?

The answer to that last question is most definitely a yes. What they do is support a system of clientelism to enough of their constituents so that in their eyes, the means through which such patronage is dispensed becomes irrelevant in a country where governments fail to provide an adequate level of support to their populace.

The phenomenon is in no way limited to developing countries. In an advanced economy such as Italy where people still prefer to contract with each other based on personal ties rather than through impersonal markets, their current prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, who has been hit by sex and corruption scandals, seems to retain wide popular support.

It took the global recession for the long-dominant ruling party of Japan to be booted out in last year's election. The new government vowed to take down the all-powerful triad led by the civil service along with members of the political and business elite who in the past have so successfully colluded to steer the economy in the right direction, but whose complacency was now holding the country back, so it claimed.

Even in countries where impersonal contracting has taken over as a result of a strong judicial system and where governments are adequately resourced, political parties are often found to engage in unsavoury practices. In Illinois for instance, the former governor tried to sell the vacated senate seat of President Barack Obama. One can find instances of such wheeling and dealing in local politics perhaps where such personalistic contracting can still be performed.

A recent Gallup poll in the US found trust in government to be at a low. Ever since the Vietnam War and Watergate scandal that toppled President Nixon, the trust rating has gone down from the previous highs registered since the “New Deal” era of President Franklin Roosevelt.

Many attribute this low rating to the gridlock and extreme partisanship that goes on in Washington. Yet despite these sentiments, polarising and highly partisan figures such as former Alaskan governor and vice presidential contender Sarah Palin retain immense popularity. This is probably due to the fact that they are able to connect with their party base by delivering the “red meat” in terms of policy prescriptions.

In other words, in Western democracies, instances of patron-client relations involving the exchange of tangible goods can still be found within governments and political parties, but it is replaced by and large with principle-based policy back-scratching that appeals to the lowest common denominator among their most loyal constituents.

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