The One Thing Modern Voters Hate Most

Charges of corruption are toppling leaders at a growing clip. That’s a good thing for global politics.

There is a strik­ing trend in glob­al pol­i­tics: A grow­ing num­ber of pres­i­dents and prime min­is­ters are being top­pled before the end of their term by pub­lic anger and legal action relat­ing to cor­rup­tion. In just the last six months, cor­rup­tion domi­noes have fall­en in coun­tries as diverse as Armenia, Malaysia, Peru, Slovakia, South Africa, and Spain. Stepping back a bit, a star­tling fact deserves atten­tion: In the past five years, more than 10 per­cent of coun­tries in the world have expe­ri­enced cor­rup­tion-dri­ven lead­er­ship change.

In these 21 coun­tries, embat­tled lead­ers have either resigned, been oust­ed by a no-con­fi­dence vote, or been impeached or removed from office. Their alleged wrong­do­ings range from the rel­a­tive­ly mild—an Icelandic prime min­is­ter seem­ing­ly try­ing to con­ceal the exis­tence of over­seas assets—to exten­sive influ­ence-ped­dling and abuse of pow­er for pri­vate gain. Most cas­es are unre­lat­ed to each oth­er, but the 2016 release of the Panama Papers and the inves­ti­ga­tion into the Brazilian con­glom­er­ate Odebrecht have trig­gered polit­i­cal scan­dals in mul­ti­ple countries.

Not only is cor­rup­tion dri­ving out many lead­ers before their time, but it is also con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the elec­toral defeats of numer­ous incum­bents. Consider the sur­pris­ing defeat of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak in the May elec­tions that oust­ed the par­ty that had gov­erned Malaysia con­tin­u­ous­ly for more than 60 years. In the run-up to the con­test, Najib’s rep­u­ta­tion was fatal­ly weak­ened by accu­sa­tions that he siphoned hun­dreds of mil­lions of dol­lars from the state invest­ment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad into his per­son­al account. In the past sev­er­al years, Argentina, Benin, Costa Rica, Ghana, India, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and Sri Lanka have all seen incum­bent can­di­dates or par­ties defeat­ed as a par­tial or sig­nif­i­cant result of cor­rup­tion scandals.

Even where cor­rupt lead­ers are sur­viv­ing the storm, protests fueled pri­mar­i­ly or par­tial­ly by cor­rup­tion often shake up pol­i­tics, as they have in the Czech Republic, Honduras, Iran, Malta, and elsewhere.

Corruption has become a remark­ably powerful—arguably the most powerful—issue dri­ving polit­i­cal change in the world today. This real­i­ty is a cru­cial coun­ter­point to the trou­bling idea that has emerged in the last year or two that with media manip­u­la­tion, pop­ulist appeals, and restric­tions on civic space, cor­rupt politi­cians are sim­ply able do what­ev­er they want and not pay any price for it. Citizens all over are demon­strat­ing a grow­ing unwill­ing­ness to put up with cor­rupt behav­ior and oth­er forms of bad gov­er­nance. By doing so, they are chang­ing glob­al pol­i­tics for the better.

June 2018

Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy attends a ses­sion at the Lower House of Parliament in Madrid on May 30 two days before the assem­bly debat­ed a no-con­fi­dence motion against his gov­ern­ment. (Pierre-Philippe Marcou/AFP/Getty Images)

Spain

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy was oust­ed in a no-con­fi­dence vote fol­low­ing alle­ga­tions of slush fund-relat­ed corruption.

April 2018

Armenia

The appoint­ment of then-President Serzh Sargsyan as prime min­is­ter, allow­ing him to evade con­sti­tu­tion­al term lim­its and remain in pow­er, led to large-scale protests against the regime’s cor­rup­tion and auto­crat­ic ten­den­cies. The demon­stra­tions forced his res­ig­na­tion and the end of the Republican Party’s decades-long rule.

March 2018

Mauritian President Ameenah Gurib-Fakim greets guests dur­ing the annu­al gar­den par­ty for the cel­e­bra­tion of Independence at the State House in Reduit in Mauritius on March 13. (Dev Ramkhelawon/AFP/Getty Images)

Mauritius

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim resigned as Mauritius’s (large­ly cer­e­mo­ni­al) pres­i­dent over alle­ga­tions she mis­used NGO funds pro­vid­ed by an Angolan busi­ness­man with invest­ments in the country.

March 2018

Peru

President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned in the face of Odebrecht-relat­ed alle­ga­tions of influ­ence-ped­dling and con­flicts of inter­est, as well as alleged­ly seek­ing to bribe law­mak­ers to pre­vent his impeachment.

March 2018

Slovak Prime Minister Robert Fico stands behind bun­dles of euro ban­knotes dur­ing a Feb. 27 press con­fer­ence in Bratislava, Slovakia, on the mur­der case of a lead­ing jour­nal­ist who inves­ti­gat­ed high-pro­file tax fraud. (Vladimir Simicek/AFP/Getty Images)

Slovakia

Prime Minister Robert Fico resigned after the mur­der of a reporter inves­ti­gat­ing tax fraud and cor­rup­tion sparked pub­lic outrage.

February 2018

South Africa

President Jacob Zuma resigned under pres­sure from the pub­lic and his own par­ty after numer­ous cor­rup­tion accu­sa­tions tar­nished his administration’s image.

July 2017

Pakistan’s Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif speaks to media after appear­ing before an anti-cor­rup­tion com­mis­sion at the Federal Judicial Academy in Islamabad on June 15, 2017. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan

Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif was declared unfit for office by the Supreme Court after the Panama Papers leak revealed that his fam­i­ly held unde­clared over­seas invest­ments and finan­cial inter­ests. In a sub­se­quent rul­ing, the Supreme Court held that Sharif was barred for life from hold­ing pub­lic office.

March 2017

Lesotho

Prime Minister Pakalitha Mosisili lost a no-con­fi­dence vote in the National Assembly fol­low­ing wide­spread dis­con­tent with the government’s eco­nom­ic mis­man­age­ment and con­tin­ued cor­rup­tion. Mosisili was defeat­ed in sub­se­quent elections.

March 2017

Ousted South Korean President Park Geun-hye leaves for Seoul Central District Court from her pri­vate home on March 30, 2017, in Seoul. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

South Korea

Following mass protests, President Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed from office because of accu­sa­tions of influ­ence-ped­dling and oth­er cor­rup­tion. In 2018, Park was sen­tenced to 24 years in prison.

August 2016

Brazil

President Dilma Rousseff was impeached and removed from office on charges of manip­u­lat­ing the bud­get in a high­ly polar­ized polit­i­cal atmos­phere fol­low­ing seri­ous alle­ga­tions of sys­temic corruption. 

June 2016

Prime Minister of Croatia Tihomir Oreskovic arrives for the European Union lead­ers sum­mit at the European Council on December 14, 2017, in Brussels, Belgium. (Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)

Croatia

Prime Minister Tihomir Oreskovic lost a no-con­fi­dence vote in Parliament fol­low­ing a con­flict of inter­est scan­dal con­cern­ing the deputy prime min­is­ter and a Hungarian oil company.

April 2016

Iceland

Prime Minister Sigmundur David Gunnlaugsson resigned after the Panama Papers rev­e­la­tions showed over­seas assets he had seem­ing­ly tried to hide.

April 2016

Kyrgyzstan’s Prime Minister Temir Sariyev, cen­ter, reviews an hon­or guard with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang dur­ing a wel­come cer­e­mo­ny in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on December 16, 2015. (Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images)

Kyrgyzstan

Prime Minister Temir Sariyev resigned after a par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sion accused his admin­is­tra­tion of cor­rup­tion relat­ed to bid­ding for gov­ern­ment contracts.

April 2016

Ukraine

Prime Minister Arseniy Yatsenyuk resigned because of pub­lic anger over entrenched cor­rup­tion and unre­solved eco­nom­ic problems.

November 2015

Former Prime Minister Victor Ponta exits the High Court of Cassation and Justice in Bucharest on November 6, 2015. (Daniel Mihailescu/AFP/Getty Images)

Romania

Prime Minister Victor Ponta resigned fol­low­ing a fatal night­club fire in a broad­er con­text of sus­tained anti-cor­rup­tion protests against the government.

November 2015

Vanuatu

President Baldwin Lonsdale dis­solved Parliament fol­low­ing the con­vic­tion of 14 mem­bers for bribery, includ­ing two for­mer prime min­is­ters. While Lonsdale remained in office, Prime Minister Sato Kilman was replaced in the fol­low­ing elections.

October 2015

Moldova’s Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet attends the European People Party head of states con­gress in Madrid, Spain on October 22, 2015. (Wiktor Dabkowski/AP)

Moldova

Prime Minister Valeriu Strelet was oust­ed in a no-con­fi­dence vote after con­tin­ued pop­u­lar out­rage at cor­rup­tion fol­low­ing the arrest of for­mer Prime Minister Vlad Filat for tak­ing bribes, as well as a mas­sive 2014 bank fraud case.

September 2015

Egypt

Prime Minister Ibrahim Mehleb resigned because of a cor­rup­tion probe tar­get­ing the agri­cul­ture min­is­ter, as well as gen­er­al poor per­for­mance in oth­er areas of governance.

September 2015

Former Guatemalan pres­i­dent Otto Perez Molina leaves Guatemala City’s court after he was ordered to stand tri­al on cor­rup­tion charges on October 27, 2017. (Johan Ordonez/AFP/Getty Images)

Guatemala

President Otto Pérez Molina resigned hours after being stripped of his immu­ni­ty by Congress fol­low­ing rev­e­la­tions of his involve­ment in a cus­toms-relat­ed cor­rup­tion scheme. Pérez Molina was sub­se­quent­ly arrested.

May 2014

Thailand

Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra faced mass protests prompt­ed in part by a pro­posed amnesty law that would have dis­missed her brother’s (for­mer Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra) 2008 con­vic­tion for cor­rup­tion. Yingluck was also inves­ti­gat­ed for cor­rup­tion and mis­man­age­ment relat­ed to a pub­lic rice pur­chas­ing scheme. Yingluck was removed from office by the Constitutional Court in May 2014 for abuse of pow­er in an unre­lat­ed mat­ter, while the mil­i­tary staged a coup short­ly afterwards.

February 2014

Urainian President Viktor Yanukovych arrives at Andrews Air Force Base on April 11, 2010, in Maryland ahead of a Nuclear Security Summit. (Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images)

Ukraine

President Viktor Yanukovych fled the coun­try and was sub­se­quent­ly removed from office by par­lia­ment fol­low­ing large-scale protests trig­gered by Yanukovych’s refusal to sign an asso­ci­a­tion agree­ment with the European Union, as well as gen­er­al anger at the government’s cor­rup­tion and mismanagement.

June 2013

Czech Republic

Prime Minister Petr Necas resigned after graft and spy­ing alle­ga­tions sur­faced against his clos­est aide, with whom he also had a roman­tic relationship.

Thomas Carothers is the senior vice pres­i­dent for stud­ies at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Christopher Carothers is a doc­tor­al can­di­date in gov­ern­ment and an Ashford Fellow at Harvard University.

The One Thing Modern Voters Hate Most

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