December 9 is International Anti-Corruption Day. Started a decade ago by the U.N.’s General Assembly, which states on its website that “corruption is a complex social, political and economic phenomenon that affects all countries…[it] undermines democratic institutions, slows economic development and contributes to governmental instability…[it] attacks the foundation of democratic institutions.” This all sounds good — except for the first part.
There are two escape tunnels in that first sentence. One is that the issue is “complex” (so don’t blame anyone if it takes time — forever? — to eradicate). The other is that “it affects all countries.” It does, but there is a difference between dangerous corruption and the largely trivial amounts, sometimes illegal, spent by British parliamentarians on their expenses or by Swedish cabinet mister Mona Sahlin, who charged her government credit card for a chocolate bar. Most were punished. Sahlin had to withdraw her bid for her party’s leadership, some British MPs were fired, fined or were given (short) prison terms.
Where countries with a functioning democracy and civil society can keep corruption down (but never out), others must live with it as a major, sometimes overpowering, fact of daily life. Eruptions against corruption tend to be massive, even violent. Acting as real-time demonstrations of the U.N.’s declaration, the mass protests threatening the governments in Ukraine and Thailand have corruption at the core of their complaints. The gatherings in Kiev were spurred by President Viktor Yanukovich’s swerve from an association agreement with the European Union toward a closer relationship with Russia. The protesters believe that Yankovich, his family and favored cronies are robbing the people of their state.
In Thailand, Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra dissolved parliament on Monday and called a snap election after weeks of protests in Bangkok that brought 150,000 people to the streets. Demonstrators took to the streets in response to the prime minister’s support of an amnesty bill that would have allowed her brother, Thaksin Shinawatra, to return to Thailand without facing a jail sentence. His own 2001-2006 premiership ended in a military coup, and he has been mostly in exile since, with various charges of corruption proven or pending against him.
Even so, Thai commentators believe the Shinawatras’ base of support would sustain a majority in the next election — one large reason why the prime minister called for a return to the polls.