Corruption becomes a major campaign issue


What do the victory of Hamas in the Palestinian Authority, the defeat of Silvio Berlusconi, Italian prime minister, and the indictment of Tom DeLay, former U.S. House majority leader, all have in common?

Corruption. Having worked on electoral campaigns around the world, we are struck by the number of countries in which corruption has become a top-tier issue that mobilizes voters, decides elections and shapes the agenda of nations. Public anger over corruption is particularly intense in countries that are less developed or undergoing transitions from communist or autocratic rule to more open systems. Across 20 transitional and developing countries in Latin America, Central Europe, Asia and Africa, where our firm has conducted surveys over the past five years, corruption is the third-strongest public concern, cited by 21 percent on average as one of their top two national problems. Higher shares are focused on unemployment (48 percent) and poor living conditions (34 percent).

But corruption leads a second tier of issues and emerges as a significantly stronger concern than many bread-and-butter issues.

This is one reason the slogan for many opposition movements in these countries revolves around the idea of "enough!" _ whether it is the "Kifaya" movement in Egypt, or the "Kmara" movement in Georgia before that country’s Rose Revolution. It is a call for more political freedom, but also for economic fairness after years of voters seeing the gains from their hard work disappear into someone else’s pocket.

But corruption is no longer just a developing-world issue. Democrats are riding into November’s U.S. congressional elections charging that Washington is mired in a "culture of corruption," as ties between Republican leaders such as DeLay and lobbyist Jack Abramoff, the convicted fraudster, become clear. This same basic charge played a major role in Romano Prodi’s victory in April against Berlusconi in the Italian election, and in the troubles that President Jacques Chirac and his UMP party face in France.

The same forces of globalization that shrank the global marketplace also create a larger space for graft and political grand theft _ as well as more opportunity and impetus for voters to resist it. As James Surowiecki recently pointed out in The New Yorker, the pressures for modernization in transitional economies create huge openings for corruption. As leaders privatize utilities and establish new regulatory regimes in a globalized economy, public offices have more lucrative opportunities to steer capital flows, provide safe havens for illicit cash, or lend official imprimatur to private schemes.

Political elites are often the last to understand that the people mean business in their calls for reforms. More surprising is the critique that has emerged from some scholars of global affairs, who argue that an overwrought focus on corruption detracts attention from more pressing issues. Last year, Moises Naim, the editor of Foreign Policy, wrote in The Washington Post that "the war on corruption is undermining democracy, helping the wrong leaders get elected and distracting societies from facing urgent problems."

Naim and others are right that a focus on corruption does not always produce progressive results. Hamas won December’s Palestinian elections in part by crusading against corruption in the ruling Fatah movement. But those who see a "corruption obsession" are wrong to think that voters have misplaced priorities. The scale of corruption often runs into billions of dollars, enough to make a real impact on a country’s economy and living standards.

That is why voters mostly talk about corruption not as a moral failing, but as an economic problem _ and in surveys across many countries they tell us it is a bigger cause of low living standards than bad economic policies.

It therefore makes sense for the World Bank and other agencies to make governance reforms a priority in the development agenda. But the rising scale and toll of corruption also means that it will be more of a first-order political issue in more and more countries. Those politicians who take the lead on this issue _ explaining its costs, identifying its perpetrators and offering solutions _ are likely to find themselves in line with most voters in their national elections and marching in front of what is becoming a global demand for transparency and change.

(Stanley Greenberg is chairman and chief executive officer, and Jeremy Rosner is senior vice-president, of Greenberg Quinlan Rosner, a public-opinion research and strategy company. This column first appeared in The Financial Times.)