Opinion: Corruption is a pandemic. The solution is democracy.

"To clean up governance, we must clean up elections."

Opinion: Corruption is a pandemic. The solution is democracy. was published by Devex on September 27, 2021.

This year, we marked the International Day of Democracy on Sept. 15 with a somber reflection on the state of democracy in the world. Unfortunately, while COVID-19 has spread indiscriminately, so too has autocracy. At the start of 2021, 68% of the world’s population, representing 87 countries, live under autocracy. As we hurl toward 2022, we’ve seen an even more alarming and precipitous democratic decline around the world, from Afghanistan to Nicaragua.

With the weakening of democracy, corruption is also on the rise, working hand in hand, feeding on weakened institutions, and fundamentally unjust systems of power.

It is not surprising that these are two of the three main themes for U.S. President Joe Biden’s proposed global Summit for Democracy: Authoritarianism and corruption are intertwined and represent an urgent and pervasive threat to democracy, prosperity, and security.

Without effective protection, elections can be a central component in cycles of systemic corruption. This is increasingly true as even autocratic leaders use elections for some form of legitimacy for their rule. During elections, vote-buying, bribery, and the abuse of state resources can be used to influence and coerce voters.

To tackle the roots of political corruption and push back on autocracy, democratic actors must confront opaque and illicit political funding and spending — from influence peddling to state capture. Some have called illicit campaign finance the “original sin” of corruption because of the way it builds and bonds corrupt links between the public and private sectors. And we couldn’t agree more.

Once elected, corrupt politicians and their supporters may have nearly unfettered access to the power of civil service, public contractors, government communications, state media, and other means of in-kind support to both enrich themselves and gain an unfair advantage in future elections.

This abuse entrenches those who are able to seize the commanding heights of power, reinforcing existing exclusionary power dynamics. It also puts government decision-making up for sale — and businesses, cartels, and nefarious individuals are happy to pay.

While the U.N. Convention Against Corruption includes important commitments designed to ensure public sector integrity and prevent the abuse of official functions, it does not explicitly recognize the specific risks posed by election-related corrupt conduct or the abuse of state resources in election campaigns.

The United Nations General Assembly Political Declaration, which was adopted in June as part of the General Assembly Special Session on Corruption, finally acknowledged the importance of protecting the integrity of the electoral process as a corruption prevention measure. The declaration calls for transparency in the funding of “candidatures for elected public office, political parties, and electoral campaigns.” In July, the U.N. Human Rights Committee emphasized the importance of “good governance, democracy and the rule of law” in the fight against corruption.

Experience with the U.N. tells us, however, that significant action is needed to bring life to what are, for now, just words on a page. To clean up governance, we must clean up elections.

First, emerging tools and research — for example, around online political ad monitoring — can reveal how foreign and malign actors are influencing elections and diminishing trust in democratic processes. The knowledge gained from these should be combined with concrete sanctions such as those available under the U.S. Global Magnitsky Act.

Second, offshore financial havens are shifting, and dark money is hidden in new investment schemes and online assets. The international financial system needs to catch up with these threats and help stem the flow of dark money, particularly into elections. Innovations in beneficial ownership transparency, such as those required by the new U.S. Corporate Transparency Act, may help reveal how corrupt politicians would otherwise hide illegally amassed wealth.

Third, we must start talking loudly about the involvement of unaccountable nonstate actors in influencing election campaigns and outcomes. Where this involves corrupt behavior, illegal financing, or conflicts of interest, it must be sanctioned.

Finally, mechanisms must be put in place to facilitate high levels of transparency around political funding and spending. Moreover, public institutions that oversee political finance must be protected from political interference and have the authority to take on powerful stakeholders.

These steps will strengthen the ability of democracies to fight the twin pandemic of corruption and authoritarianism.

The Biden administration’s global Summit for Democracy scheduled for December could be a pivotal opportunity to advance these and other solutions. The three priorities for the summit: Authoritarianism, corruption, and human rights are a direct reflection of this moment in history. Other United States initiatives — for example, by bi-partisan members of Congress to launch the Congressional Caucus against Foreign Corruption and Kleptocracy, and by the U.S. Agency for International Development to set up an anti-corruption task force — are also important tools to help meet the urgency of this challenge.

Democracy is not a failed or failing model, but a system that must be perfected and protected. As part of that, democratic elections must be seen for what they are: Our greatest weapon against corruption and the ultimate measure of accountability for corrupt actors.

Published on October 13, 2021.

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