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Corruption and Democracy

May 19, 2012
Indian anti-Corruption Protest

Women in India making their voices heard and saying "NO" to corruption

Corruption involves the abuse of a trust, which is the use of public power for private personal benefit. This often emerges in the form of monies and power, which to a degree can be considered as being not dissimilar. In rapidly changing societies the line separating the two is blurred; and the term “corruption” may be applied broadly. One common definition of corruption is that it is the abuse of public roles or resources for private benefit, with emphasis on the words “abuse”, “public”, “private”, and “benefit”. 



This article focuses on discussing civic corruption and development. The key questions that often come up within this context relates to the links between political and economic liberalization – the strengths or weakness of state, political, and social institutions, and the kinds of corruption that societies experience.

Corruption benefits the few at the expense of the many. It delays and distorts economic development and pre-empts basic rights and due process. It diverts (scarce) resources from basic services including international aid and assistance.

Where state institutions are weak, it is often linked to violence and because of corruption. For millions of people, “democracy” means increased insecurity: “Free markets” are where the affluent tend to become more affluent at the expense of their fellow citizens.

I maintain most strongly that corruption is undemocratic and broadly deleterious to sustained economic and growth of good governance. Since the 1980s, corruption has frequently been seen as an effect, and cause, of incomplete economic and social political liberalization, with public institutions and the political engagement treated primarily as obstructions to the process.  Public sector reforms have emphasized narrow goals of “good governance” while liberalization of economies and politics has proceeded without essential institutional foundations.

I submit that efficacious reform is a matter, not only of an improved public management rubric, but of justice! Reform requires “deep democratization” – not just elections but vigorous contention and dialogue over the real issues among people and groups capable of defending themselves politically, and of reaching political compromises sustained by their own lasting interests. This development and enhancement entailing the social ‘ownership’ of ‘good’ governance related institutions helped create democracy in societies where it is now strong. Prescriptive reform ideas are unlikely to graft and take root unless these social foundations are secure.

There has also been a sense that corruption itself is growing rapidly. As suspect regimes lost their ideological cover and other countries moved toward democracy and open markets, many scandals came to light – some new and others of longer standing. “Corruption” is both a provocative term and an attractive (ex post) explanation for a host of development and policy problems, which can involve the electoral process. Not surprisingly, those elements that are seeking remedial action on the problem, have portrayed corruption in dramatic terms. International corporations, and international aid agencies including lending institutions have begun to look at corruption within target nations, and within their own programs and operations in a more transparent and objective manner. Corruption has also become the focus of sustained international advocacy—Transparency International founded in 1993 continues to expand its activities on a variety of levels.


One point that is advanced (by this writer) is that, no one really knows whether or not corruption is indeed expanding and growing. Corruption is a secretive process in most cases: All those who possess knowledge of such corrupt and illicit practice, have a strong interest in concealing these activities of a ‘corrupt’ – ‘venal’ nature. Instead, the most important contrasts are located at deeper levels – in patterns of participation and in the strength of institutions, and linking, the political, electoral and the economic arenas so as to determine or predict an ethos of unregulated (corrupt) behaviour.

Balanced and sustained democratic systems of governance, which includes market growth development, depend upon an ethos that is not constrained by venality lending to corrupt behaviour. This can be considered as a normative developmental ideal, which is defined by open, free, competitive, but structured civic electoral participation in politics promoting good governance. This will facilitate the development of a strong effective robust economy entailing legitimate, effective governance institutions that both protect and restrain activities in public policy generation while maintaining clear boundaries and paths of access between them. Intensive economic competition does not necessarily create or produce broad-based economic growth. Considered sound policies and institutions that facilitate and protect property rights, investment and a fair redistribution of wealth are also critical element in the promotion of an objective fair regime of economic political governance.

Political competition alone is not adequate, even if expressed through the civic electoral model (i.e. elections). Elections must be legitimate and decisive as well as free and fairly competitive. Access, rights and freedoms of expression between election campaigns are, of crucial importance. Open, free and fair competitive electoral participation is essential if people (the citizens) are to express their electoral preferences unencumbered and have their choices arbitrated (justly) by decision makers.

A critical aspect of democracy is to be able to reward effective government and also able to oust the incompetent or abusive one. Citizens who have real political and economic alternatives will be less vulnerable to exploitation and dependency upon the state for personal and economic protection from harm or sanction. Civic participation must be orderly and structured.


Power corrupts?

Total laissez-faire in the political and economic arena is likely to empower a few people, enrich the few (oligarchs), while at the same time impoverishing the vast majority members of the society. Political free-for-all among some twenty or thirty political entities will not yield democratic mandates.


Insecurity can induce politicians, unsure of their hold on power, to enrich themselves as quickly as they can, and economic entrepreneurs to buy official protection while insisting on maximum short-term returns.

Democratic politics rests not only on open competition, but also on normative assumptions of equality and fair play adumbrated by the notion of “one person-one vote”. Self-interest may drive the process but competition among the various interest groups must be ensured by specific previously agreed-upon judicially rendered boundaries which guide both the conduct and performance to an agreed upon series of protocols.

Institutionalized paths and rules of access between the political and economic scope of influence are just as important as the judicially rendered boundaries.  These boundaries are essential for maintaining accountability of state to society, and for feedback that can send critical signals to policymakers and other centres of influence. Public officials require adequate autonomy to perform their work in an uncompromised, prescriptive authoritative fashion, while groups in society and the economy cannot be the instruments (tools) of the politicians and senior bureaucrats. Maintaining the balance is complicated enough in mature democracies—in transitional societies creating accepted boundaries and paths of access/influence could be a most fundamental challenge.

Problems with civic electoral participation and institutional degradation not only contribute to corruption but shape corruption in a variety of ways. Electoral corruption in some countries may consist of vote stealing and intimidation of citizens, while in other regions civic electoral corruption revolves around the theft of public resources to reward followers and to purchase electoral support. At times corrupt incentives are used by elites to keep elections from being genuinely competitive in the first place.


Corruption in civil society is of a deep normative concern and can be a matter of considerable ontological dispute in terms of the absolute essential in defining the moment. Precise and absolute definitions of corruption and corrupt practice are a matter of a long running debate, while attempting to parse with confidence the absolute definition as to the ‘real’ entailment-corruption.

Corruption involves the abuse of a trust, which is the use of public power for private personal benefit. This often emerges in the form of monies and power, which to a degree can be considered as being not dissimilar. In rapidly changing societies it is not always clear what those limits are, and the term “corruption” may be applied broadly. This could lead to the (homogenizational) denudation of the term if not concept of “corruption” and “corrupt practice”. One definition of corruption can be stated as the abuse of public roles or resources for private benefit with emphasis that “abuse”, “public”, “private”, and even “benefit” are matters of contention and numerous societies and of varying degrees of ambiguity in most.


"The envelope of happiness"

Civic electoral participation in forms both helpful and harmful proliferated while state institutions were being de-emphasized, curtailed or even defined as causes of corruption and barriers to development.  For many citizens ‘democracy’ can entail increased poverty and insecurity in personal life, and ineffective leadership and the development of public policy in the public realm of providing good governance.


All too often in the policy debate however, corruption has been seen as a generic problem. Its deeper origins, the ways it is embedded in political and economic processes, and its role as a symptom of diverse and problematical relationships between wealth and power, public and private interests, and state and society, are acknowledged but shrouded with extreme ambiguity in being understood in depth and with precision.  How rapidly changing societies achieve a normative standard place is reduced to recommendations for technical changes in “governance” and requires “political will” to effect normative positive change.

The author of this article, Monte McMurchy is a member of the Editorial Board of Read-Online.Org. He is a member of UNDP Democratic Governance Roster For Electoral Systems, Member of UNDP Expert Roster For Crisis Prevention and Recovery, and Member of UNDP Expert Roster For Parliamentary Development. He has 20+ years international experience in Civic Electoral Building and Civil Capacity Good Governance Development under the aegis of CIDA-USAID-OSCE-CoE-Commonwealth-UNDP-UN.(Contact: monte.mcmurchy@read-online.org)

Opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not represent the editorial position of Read-Online.Org


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3 Responses to Corruption and Democracy

  1. GS RADJOU on May 20, 2012 at 13:44

    Democracy is a huge topic- Sometimes, I read the confusion between the nation and the people-

    Democracy based on people used to be… (Easten Europe democracies were based on people)- Often, people elected directly their representatives. (in the so called direct democracy)

    In the West (occident), we (people) accepted to transfer the power from God (theocracy) to an assembly with a real representation, based on a virtual group called the nation-

    A nation is all people living in the national soil i;e locals or foreign origins willing to share the same country space, destiny-history, share the national language, the culture,…

    The nation (an not the people) is electing representatives at various political country levels….

    So, 2 different representations of a different reality- and it would be hard to find both concept in the same country. Here is the confusion!!!But, of course some democracies like the French one, which is based on the nation (not the people) is a direct democracy (male and females elect their representants and at turn they will choose thos people who decide for the bottom (citizens)-

    Still, the coutry constitution is borrowing elements of direct democracy (democracy based on people)

    During the referendum, the French head of state shorcut the elected representatives of the French nation (virtual body) to communicate directly with the people of the nation (it is the direct side of the democracy)-

    Of course, in the world, no democracy is the same.

  2. Helen on May 21, 2012 at 02:53

    Blind election gives birth to a potentially corrupted government. Such collective decision on who to rule, especially in most young democracies, is based on empty promises and usually veiling intensions instead of disclosing reality.

    Another concern about corruption is how to define “private use”, which involves the deep question about how to divide public life and private life. Quote Hannah Arendt in The Human Condition: “the dividing line is blurred because we see the body of peoples and political communities in the image of a family whose every day affairs have to be taken care of by a gigantic, nation-wide administration of house-keeping.”. Following this logic of family as a political model, the head of the family could be able to legitimately integrate his/her private and public life into one, within a “family-scale”, thus disguise the abuse of the fellows’ trust by legalized authorization as a form of collective power deprivation, for example, some rulers achieved to revise constitution after being voted.

  3. Sa'ed Rabadi on May 22, 2012 at 09:32

    The article was very accurate in defining corruption and its causes especially the economic liberalization cause. Developing countries have a lot to do to stand up for corruption while developed countries have to review many of its strategies and plans regarding the economic reform (liberalization) in developing countries particularly using the WTO to improve the economic situation of all the members not only the rich members at the expense of the poor ones. The solution of fighting corruption and other problems around the world is to globalize legislations and give credibility of the international organizations.

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