Something is Rotten in Western Democracies

‘Many now are furious’ – A protestor holds up a sign during a demonstration in front of the government office in Bucharest, Romania

by Max Kratschke (PhD candidate in the College of Medicine and Veterinary Medicine’s School of Clinical Sciences)


Most of us have probably begun to feel that something isn’t quite right in our western democracies. Voters are increasingly turning away from establishment parties, and towards fringe parties and populists. The clearest example of this was Donald Trump’s victory against Hillary Clinton in the US presidential election of 2016, during which he ran under a promise to ‘drain the swamp’ in Washington, while depicting his opponent as the face of the establishment. In fact, most western countries have experienced a decrease in the appeal of the large centrist parties that have so long dominated the political landscape. The causes of this trend are multi-facetted and intricately interwoven, including stagnating living standards and the perception of rising immigration. However, one factor is rarely mentioned in this context, yet it frequently influences public opinion of politicians and politics in general, sometimes to the extent that it can lead to the downfall of government. That factor is corruption.

Corruption kills

On 30 October 2015, a fire started in the Colectiv nightclub in Bucharest, Romania, leading to the death of 64 people. The causes were illegal indoor use of outdoor pyrotechnics and the lack of emergency exits, among other legal requirements. Within days it became clear that the club’s owners had illegally obtained the licence to run the club from the mayor of Bucharest’s fourth district, while health and safety inspections were essentially being conducted pro forma. Soon, tens of thousands of people were demonstrating in the streets, carrying slogans such as ‘corruption kills’. Before long, Romania’s government was forced to resign.

The reason for this rapid fall of the Romanian government was that the people had had enough of politicians’ brazen nepotism and the fact that they seemed more interested in lining their pockets than ensuring the safety of Romanian citizens. However, in most other Western democracies cases of corruption that become public rarely lead to a government’s downfall, and often are simply swept under the rug. The question that arises nonetheless is whether these instances have any long-lasting effect on the public’s perception of its political class, and its voting behaviour.

Where the Balkans begin

A few countries to the west of Romania lies the republic of Austria, known for its alpine scenery, love of music, and high living standards of its capital, Vienna. Rarely do people associate it with corruption. Nevertheless, an old saying in Austria translates to ‘The Balkans begin in Vienna’, and for good reason. In fact, Austria has experienced a number of large corruption scandals throughout its history, ranging from the Lukona affair in the 1970’s to the more recent BUWOG affair and the ongoing Eurofighter investigation. Together, these and other large-scale political corruption scandals have undermined the Austrian public’s confidence in its political establishment. The extent of this can be seen in successive European commission reports, revealing that in Austria, 60% perceive national politicians and political parties as corrupt, and the most corrupt institution in the country. In 2016, the Austrian Market Research Organisation (OGM), found that 82% of Austrians had little to no trust in politics.

What effect has this had on the voting behaviour of Austrians? For a long time, post-war governance was an exclusive dominion of the two centrist parties, the conservative People’s Party and the Social Democrats. However, as people became increasingly fed up with successive governments that put nepotism before the interest of the state, this provided fertile ground for the right-wing Freedom Party. Thus, since the turn of the millennium the centrist parties have seen their voter share drop dramatically. This culminated in the recent Austrian presidential elections, in which both centrist parties were soundly defeated in the first round, and the former Green party leader Alexander Van der Bellen beat the Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer by a slim margin. While a far-right head of state has been narrowly averted, a new storm is brewing: it is quite likely that Austria will hold its parliamentary elections (far more important than the presidential ones) earlier than anticipated, perhaps even in the fall of 2017, and since there is only a single round of voting there is a very real possibility that the Freedom Party may clinch the victory this time.

Clean hands and construction bubbles

For other nations, the fear of being governed by populists has long since become a reality, and may even already lie in their past. Italy’s political landscape was dominated by the conservative Christian Democratic party (and to a lesser extent the socialist party) for nearly 50 years. In the 1980’s, corruption among the political elite became more and more widespread, and after the ‘Mani Pulite’ investigations, the Tangentopoli scandal burst the bubble in 1992. With the arrests of many political and industrial leaders in the wake of this vast corruption scandal, establishment politics was reduced to a rubble. After the new elections of 1994, Italy’s political landscape was practically rebuilt from scratch. Gone were the large centrist parties, while the winners were radical populist parties of the Right, such as the Lega Nord, and the election’s victor, Silvio Berlusconi. Ironically, his is a name that would not only be associated with Italy for the next 17 years, but ‘Berlusconi’ became a byword for all that can go wrong in politics.

A vast corruption scandal has more recently erupted in another European nation, though the process here has been more drawn-out. Like Italy, Spain was accustomed to being governed by large centrist parties- the Social Democrats and the conservative People’s Party (PP). However, in 2009 the Gürtel case became public, with the investigations lasting until 2016 and primarily involving members of the PP. Bribery, money laundering and tax evasion are some of the accusations, but perhaps most significantly these activities appear to have fuelled Spain’s construction bubble that burst during the recent economic and financial crisis and which contributed to the subsequent depression during which Spain’s unemployment levels soared to over 25%. These revelations have contributed to a disillusionment among the population with its political leaders. Indeed, Spaniards’ perception of its political parties (84%) and national politicians (72%) as corrupt is the highest in the EU. While Spain has ultimately ended up with another conservative government, this has led to the dramatic rise of new left-wing parties, such as Podemos. Moreover, the country’s wider political landscape is a shadow of the stability it once was, having recently experienced multiple inconclusive elections, political paralysis, and countless protests. Corruption, too, is high on the agenda.

Viktor Orban, Hungary’s populist right-wing leader, is another controversial leader who initially ran on an anti-corruption platform, although he has now, in turn, entrenched corruption in the country’s political system further. The result: the far-right party Jobbik bases much of its propaganda around anti-corruption and anti-establishment politics, and is seeing its popularity rise. Poland is another country that recent experience of political upheaval, with corruption scandals of the previous government among the causative factors.

One current election campaign in which corruption has arguably taken on a decisive role is in the French presidential election. Francois Fillon, the erstwhile frontrunner, was confronted with multiple claims of nepotism involving his wife and children, and subsequently saw his popularity slide. Another candidate beset by accusations of corruption (albeit to a lesser effect) is Marine Le Pen, who is being investigated over alleged misuse of EU funds. Ultimately in this election, too, corruption is shaping up to be the king(un-)maker.

Politicians for sale – nothing illegal

In all these aforementioned cases there is a common theme: illegal practices by the political establishment have led to the degradation of public trust in Western political institutions, leading voters to turn their backs on this establishment towards, not uncommonly, populist anti-establishment parties. A primary concern of many voters is that businesses and politicians appear too close and cosy, with the revolving door system of particular concern. The worry is that interest groups lobby politicians by bank-rolling their political campaigns, thereby indebting them for future gain. This practice has become globally widespread in recent years, and may be one of the leading causes of popular disgruntlement with established political systems.

One particular nation stands out because of the extent to which it is legally possible to financially support a politician’s campaign, with great political impact on its governance and the public resentment this has generated. That nation, of course, is the United States. After the fateful Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission ruling by the Supreme Court in 2010, the floodgates were opened. Since then, it has been possible for non-profit corporations to support a political candidate’s campaign with no limit to the amount of money spent, as long as this support is not coordinated with the candidate. Furthermore, recent examples have made it clear that the definition of ‘coordination’ is very loose, liberating this spending spree even further. The effect of this ruling has been to unleash a vast amount of funding from untold interest groups, each keen to provide their political candidate of choice with financial support, and thereby gain their share of leverage.

Interestingly, this had less of an effect during recent presidential races than, say, gubernatorial elections, since there is so much money going around for everyone now during presidential campaigns. Nevertheless, this system seems to have poisoned the public’s view of politics even further- an effect not unlike that of traditional corruption.

Ultimately, it appears that this system may indeed have had a huge impact on the Western public’s perception of ‘the establishment’. Of course other factors have tarnished its image too, such as the banking scandals after the crash in 2008. But then again, did the bailout not also serve the interests of large corporations (banks), represented by government officials closely linked to said banks, arguably to the detriment of the rest of society? The lack of the voter’s trust in the establishment was never clearer than during the 2016 presidential race. Both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump ran on an anti-establishment ticket, and it is very likely that it was the image of ‘Establishment candidate’ that cost Hillary Clinton the race. Many who sided with Trump argued that a candidate who is so rich will be incorruptible in office- revealing what they thought of all the other politicians taking part in the race.

Thus, ‘corruption’ has shaped American politics in multiple ways. First, by enhancing the power of money, allowing corporations to promote their interests over the welfare of the entire country (one dollar, one vote). Second, it has turned people against the establishment, providing a fertile ground for populists like Trump. Interestingly, people appear to largely tolerate a corrupt ruling elite if they associate it with increased economic prosperity and stability, as in Russia, China, Turkey and elsewhere. Yet they do not if they take these things for granted, or are even experiencing stagnating living standards, as is the case in Europe.

Ultimately, we find serious questions about the state of our Western democracies. The official measure of corruption is often quite deceiving as it tends to focus solely on illegal bribery. Perhaps it is time for us to take a closer look at our political systems and make some long overdue changes, rather than merely shaking our heads at those we routinely disagree with who vote to overturn the ‘Establishment’.