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When Voters Challenge Impunity
Citizens are less permissive and increasingly willing to voice their discontent with corrupt officials
In April of 2019, the former Peruvian president Alan Garcia died after shooting himself when police attempted to arrest him in relation to the Odebrecht massive corruption case. Three other former presidents of Peru are also implicated in the investigations surrounding the operations of the Brazilian construction company in the country. Throughout Latin America, hundreds of high-level officials are under investigation for receiving illegal campaign finance or accepting bribes in exchange for contracts.
This wasn’t the first time that Mr. Garcia was implicated in a corruption scandal. In the 1990s, a prosecutor opened a case for embezzlement and bribery during his prior presidential term (1995-1990), indictments that Mr. Garcia was only able to evade thanks to the expiration of the prescription period. In 2011, he was elected for a second term in spite of the well-known corruption charges. Other politicians implicated in even more clear-cut cases of corruption have also won elections in Peru and Latin America. Alberto Fujimori (father of the now imprisoned Keiko Fujimori) retained popularity even after the Vladi-videos exposed his personal advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos, handing out piles of money to legislators, journalists, and judges.
In fact, the electoral success of blatantly corrupt politicians was such a recurrent phenomenon that conventional wisdom had a name for it: “roba pero hace” (steals but gets things done). This economic explanation for corruption voting, based on citizens’ pockets, has been particularly powerful in a region where a third of the population lives in poverty.
In a recent article in Political Studies, I dig into the explanations for the puzzle of unpopular corruption and popular corrupt politicians. I begin by examining the tradeoff hypothesis and theoretically distinguishing between two different ways in which economic well-being drives voters’ tolerance of corruption. Then, I identify and test one particular form of trade-off between corruption and economic performance that distinctly embodies the puzzle of voters condoning corrupt politicians: precisely how would candidate competence in public works provision influence electoral support for a corrupt politician?
I find that types of corruption that carry side benefits would be harshly punished when attributed to incompetent politicians. This indicates that typical types of corruption such as bribes in exchange for public works, even if not considered the most outrageous to the public, can be harshly penalized when voters perceive the suspected politician as incompetent.
A second important contribution of this article is that it tests an alternative hypothesis, the idea that voters don’t punish corruption because voters expect bribery to be ingrained in politics. In the current political moment in Latin America, a large proportion of citizens perceive the situation of corruption to have worsened and consider that anti-corruption government measures are ineffective. It’s possible, therefore, that new information about one official’s honest or dishonest behavior might be overlooked when voters’ prior expectations are that corruption is a normalized practice. This argument is in line with other research showing a demobilization effect of corrupt politicians and an increase in cynicism among Brazilians.
Against expectations, however, I found that citizens do not overlook corruption when they view it as inevitable; they instead punish corrupt incumbents just as severely in both high and low corruption environments. The electoral punishment is slightly smaller, though not statistically significant, for corrupt candidates under the high prevalence of corruption treatment condition than under the low prevalence of corruption condition. This finding suggests that, although voters do not overlook corruption when corruption is widespread, they do not apply a corruption penalty of a different magnitude in a context of low prevalence of corruption.
Overall, these results are particularly interesting form a comparative perspective because Peru—a low-middle income country with a long history of electoral impunity— is an unlikely case in which to find that politicians cannot get away with taking bribes, even when corruption is perceived to be the norm rather than the exception. Although the present study also suggests that voters do apply smaller penalties to corruption when the candidate is presented as an efficient public works provider, the evidence that voters are not entirely forgiving sheds light on the micro-foundations of accountability for corruption. Citizens are less permissive and increasingly willing to voice their discontent with corrupt officials.
Read the full-length article published in Political Studies here.
Sofia B Vera (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an assistant professor of political science at Reed College. Her research interests include political behavior, representation, corruption, political institutions, and democracy. Replication datasets for this study are available upon request.