Corruption, we often hear, “undermines democratic institutions.” That’s a sterilized phrase. What does it really mean?
Start with a legitimately elected leader. If he’s weak and greedy — as many people are — he takes a few small bribes in return for helping cronies game the system.
The bribes are a breach of trust and have to be kept secret.
As time passes and bribes mount, the stakes go up.
The leader’s family and friends become part of the graft machine. They collect bribes through phony companies. They launder bribe money by buying luxury properties in France or New York or Vancouver.
Leaving office becomes more and more dangerous. Once out of power, the leader and his gang would be vulnerable. Keeping power is the only option.
To hold on, the leader corrupts judges and legislators. He buys the loyalty of generals. He pays off or threatens those who control the ballot boxes. Elections, if they still happen, are now phony.
Doing all that costs big money. So the leader becomes a full-blown kleptocrat. Treasuries are looted and resources stripped.
Regimes led by kleptocrats (dictators) may look stable but they’re not.
Bullied and victimized citizens will eventually fight back. They decide life is so bad that risking death is worth it. That might take ten years, or twenty, or even longer. But they’ll rise up and the regime will come to a disastrous end.
That’s what the Arab Spring was about. It’s how Suharto lost Indonesia. Tito’s Yugoslavia eventually fell apart. People Power in the Philippines swept Marcos from office. The Somoza family ruled Nicaragua for 45 years but couldn’t hold on. The Shah lost his Peacock Throne in Iran. And so on.
When the end comes, kleptocrats scramble to save themselves and their families. Some live through it. Very often, though, mobs show up and demand heads.
Yes, graft “undermines democratic institutions.” That’s why it’s important to fight against corruption and for transparency. It’s the only way to keep the kleptocrats away.
Richard L. Cassin is the publisher and editor of the FCPA Blog. He’ll be the keynote speaker at the FCPA Blog NYC Conference 2016.