Why Tainted Politicians Get Elected: Lesson Of The Global South

Why Tainted Politicians Get Elected: Lesson Of The Global South
A politician is elected to the country’s apex executive office. He faces grave corruption allegations during his first term. However, the charges fail to damage him politically and he is resoundingly re-elected to a second term. Once the politician leaves his position, he is tried for corruption, being no longer protected by the constitutional immunity from prosecution which he enjoyed while in office. The evidence is compelling; therefore, the man is convicted of corruption and jailed. He appeals against his conviction and the country’s Supreme Court acquits him on a technicality and sets him free after 580 days behind bars. Triumphantly he returns to the political arena, since the statute of limitations bars his re-trial for the same offence, even though the substance of his offence has never been negated. Four years later, he is again elected to the highest office of the land.

Although similarities abound, the country in question is not Pakistan. In actual fact, the reference is to Brazil and the public servant under discussion is Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva, who was elected president for a record-breaking third term on 30 October 2022, beating the incumbent, Jair Bolsanaro, a populist politician described as the Donald Trump of South America.

Lula’s election begs the obvious question: do corruption allegations against politicians really matter for electorates, particularly those in developing countries? This is not an easy question to answer, but it is definitely an issue worth threshing out, particularly for a country like Pakistan where anti-corruption has for long been the dominant discourse of the country’s politics.

In 2022, around 51% of the Brazilian electorate gave short shrift to Lula’s chequered past and voted to put him back in the presidential palace in Brasília. Why did they do so? It was not because they had no moral compass and were forgiving of corruption among their leaders, or that they were unaware of Lula’s previous lack of probity. Rather, the simple reason why the majority voted for Lula was due to his impressive record of public service.

The biggest achievement of Lula’s first two terms in office was the “Bolsa Familia”, a social welfare program which transformed the lives of over twelve million Brazilian families. The program entailed the payment of a monthly stipend to poor families on condition that they enrolled their children in school. In this way, two objectives were sought to be achieved: helping the most marginalised segments of society through financial aid; and at the same time improving literacy levels and investing in human capital. The program was a great success and it resulted in a massive reduction of poverty in Brazil.

The moral of Lula’s story is that if a politician serves the public in a meaningful and substantial manner and delivers tangible relief, then his peccadillos, errors, and surprisingly, even his corruption may not stand in the way of his continued political success. At least not in a developing country like Brazil, where the majority of Lula’s voters belong to the poor and the marginalised sections of society.

But Lula’s example is not an isolated one. Former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra was one of the country’s most popular politicians, with an impressive record of policies designed to uplift the lives of the poor and to fuel economic growth. While allegations of corruption and abuse of power haunted him both before and during his premiership, they did not dissuade the Thai public from re-electing Thaksin to office. Later, Thaksin was overthrown from power by the military and convicted of corruption and abuse of power. However, the stigma of these convictions did not debase Shinawatra in the eyes of the Thai public, and in 2011 they elected his sister and political heir, Yingluck Shinawatra, as the country’s prime minister. Later, she also faced corruption allegations and was convicted of corruption.
While such moralising may soothe the consciences of these well-meaning but simple-minded puritans, it actually makes no difference to the situation on the ground

Other examples of this phenomenon are not hard to find: in the recent past, Ferdinand Marcos Jr, son of the namesake president and Imelda Marcos, who are together believed to have siphoned off billions of dollars of the nation’s wealth, was elected Philippines’ president last year; and in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has been re-elected prime minister repeatedly, with the majority of Israeli voters showing disregard for the serious corruption allegations plaguing Netanyahu and his wife. Across the border, the nonagerian former chief minister of Indian Punjab, Sardar Parkash Singh Badal, was confronted with corruption charges throughout his lengthy political career, and he faced more than one criminal trial on this count. However, this did not prevent him from being elected chief minister for a record-breaking five tenures!

The bottom rule underlying the careers of Shinawatra, Marcos, Netanyahu, Badal and many others remains the same: effective service delivery, strong governance and successful political performance overrides any concerns in voters’ minds about the leader’s personal failings and corruption.

In Pakistan the same rule prevails, albeit in a hybrid version, largely due to the overall disjointed nature of our political landscape, which is thanks in no small measure to the establishment’s damaging interference in politics. A cursory glance at the last three general elections drives home the point with crystal clarity.

In 2008, the electorate voted in the PPP, without any qualms about the party leadership having benefited from the infamous NRO and not bothered by the serious corruption charges pending against the party leader, Asif Ali Zardari. While service delivery and strong performance may not have been the party’s strong suit, its then recently deceased leader Benazir Bhutto was an adroit politician and she had skillfully maneuvered the political chessboard in her party’s favour before her untimely death. The sympathy factor on account of her tragic assassination further cemented the PPP’s return to power.

In 2013, the same electorate handed over the reins of power to Mian Nawaz Sharif, unconcerned by any misgivings about corruption allegations that continued to dog the two-time former prime minister. The fact that younger brother Shehbaz Sharif had generally gained kudos as an effective administrator with a penchant for development-oriented schemes during his chief ministerial tenure in the Punjab from 2008-2013, strongly boosted the elder Sharif’s chances of winning the prime minister’s slot for a record-breaking third tenure.

But the situation in 2018 was even more of an eye-opener. In 2017, Mian Nawaz Sharif was knocked out from electoral politics, ostensibly on account of the Panama Papers case, which related to an alleged corrupt practice, i.e. the possible funneling of alleged proceeds of crime to an offshore tax haven, but in actual fact the disqualification was made on the basis of his failure to declare an unreceived income from his son – truly a breathtakingly innovative form of legal reasoning. To top it off, the 2018 elections were marked by the warm support of the establishment for Sharif’s mortal political rival and their own current bete noire, Imran Khan.

However, even with such an adverse chessboard arrayed against it, the PML-N still won the second-highest seats in the National Assembly, with over twelve million votes to its credit, and it actually emerged as the largest party in the Punjab Assembly. How did this feat come about? The simple answer is that the electorate acknowledged that significant public welfare works were carried out by the PML-N’s governments at the centre and in the Punjab during 2013-2018. Hard-nosed and pragmatic voters obviously valued the two governments’ performance, in particular their focus on several major infrastructure projects, the development of CPEC, maintenance of a low inflation rate, relief from chronic load-shedding and taking the country’s growth rate to over 5% per annum. Clearly, these factors overrode any concerns that millions of voters may have had on account of corruption charges against the party’s top brass.

The lesson to be learnt from the above examples is that in countries where most of the basic necessities of life, such as clean drinking water, supply of electricity and gas, roads, schools, hospitals and standard government services are not available as of right for vast numbers of the populace, particularly in rural and marginalised areas, voters in these areas often cast their vote in favour of the politician who best promises to deliver these services, irrespective of his reputation for integrity. This may sound like condoning corruption, but it is not so; it is simply the hard and bitter fact of life in developing countries like Pakistan.

On the contrary, for the country’s chattering classes, which primarily comprises urbanites, particularly the rich and the upper middle classes, the discourse around corruption is framed in utopian terms, often while sitting in the comfort of their plush drawing rooms. The argument goes hence: corruption is the bane of our problems and must be rooted out from our state and society; therefore, corrupt politicians must be eliminated from politics; and once corrupt politicians are no longer on the scene, rivers of milk and honey will flow in the land.

While such moralising may soothe the consciences of these well-meaning but simple-minded puritans, it actually makes no difference to the situation on the ground. Just like the world’s oldest profession cannot be eliminated, no matter how many laws are made to curb it, similarly corruption cannot be simply expunged from politics by wishing away corrupt politicians.

No doubt, corruption is definitely an unacceptable cancer which has to be dealt with, and to do so a state needs effective accountability laws, an independent prosecution mechanism and a robust judiciary. With these conditions in place, if a politician is convicted of corruption through a fair trial, then the book should be thrown at him/her. But what is unacceptable is that an unelected and unaccountable establishment uses the corruption bogey to turf out popular politicians by whipping up public animus against them through a compliant media, by illegally leveraging a compromised accountability watchdog and unlawfully harnessing the potent power of a politicized and pliable judiciary.

In the final reckoning, the case of an allegedly corrupt politician should also be decided by the people at the hustings or through their elected representatives in parliament. This is how Najib Razak in Malaysia, Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Joseph Estrada in Philippines and Sir Joh Bjelke Petersen in Australia were dealt with.

While the law should take its own course, fairly and squarely, to take a corrupt politician to task, the people should be allowed free rein to give expression to their own views about the politician, whether directly through the ballot-box or indirectly through the representatives in parliament. That is the lesson we need to imbibe in Pakistan, or else the country will remain trapped in a sea of troubles revolving around sham trials, electoral disqualifications, manipulated elections and a continuing subversion of democracy.

The writer is a barrister with over twenty years of varied legal practice in Pakistan, UAE and Australia. He is currently an entrepreneur and the co-founder/operator of an online home-based confectionery business. The history and politics of Pakistan is his abiding passion. He can be reached at yzaman72@yahoo.com.au