The victory of Greece’s Syriza — the newborn political party with a radical left-wing ideology— at the recent election sends various messages. Among others, it demonstrates that, once again, corruption can trigger political transformation.
Alexis Tsipras, the party leader and new prime minister of Greece, had vowed during his campaign to eradicate corruption, reform public administration, and deal with tax evaders —most of them understood to be oligarchical business tycoons who are often allies of veteran politicians.
Corruption in Greece, both in the public and private sectors, has existed for many years. Since 1995, Transparency International (TI) ranked Greece behind most of its EU and Western European counterparts in the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) chart.
The same goes for Thailand.
While many might celebrate Thailand’s increase in CPI 2014 to 85th, a seemingly huge upgrade from 102nd in 2013, others tend to feel more or less nonchalant. This is understandable, because for them nothing crucial has really changed. And they are right.
In TI’s latest report, Thailand shares the 85th place with another eight countries which receive the same CPI score at 38 out of 100. Unlike rankings —in which the higher the rank, the more corrupt a country — the country that scores highest has the least corruption. In 2013, Thailand scored only 35 out of 100. So at first glance, there seems to be some development in 2014. But if one looks through the previous CPI reports, it is a different story.
In 2012, Thailand earned 37 out of 100 and ranked 88th. In 2011, in which the score presentation differs from now, the country was rated 3.4 out of 10 and placed 80th. In 2010, it received 3.5 and ranked 78th. And in 2009, Thailand was exactly at the present spot of 85th with a score of 3.4.
In the last five years or so, Thailand has been floating around the CPI’s highly-corrupt region. The country’s score has never surpassed 40, and has been circling the range of 80th-100th place every year. It could be said that Thailand has been in a “corruption trap”. It is not alone.
The term corruption trap has been used by a number of scholars and critics to refer to many countries. Philip Keefer of the World Bank found that corruption traps were common in young democracies, where political parties have little credibility.
Lacking public trust, governments become vulnerable and seek to strengthen their power by establishing ties with elites. This unavoidably leads to clientelism, and more often than not is the government’s downfall.
Since corruption discredits governments and prevents politicians from securing broad support, the need to cling to smaller groups becomes even more important for governments to stay in power. If we take this view, corruption traps are caused by a lack of trust in politicians.
Other corruption indices appear to support this perspective. From 2005 to 2013, the Global Corruption Barometer (GCP) report, also prepared by TI, had shown that the majority of survey respondents in Thailand believed that political parties were one of the most corrupt institutions in the country.
The Legatum Properity Index 2014 reported that almost 87% of respondents thought that business and government in Thailand were corrupt. Only 36.1% had confidence in the honesty of elections in the country. Since the people do not trust politicians, they can neither trust the government formed by politicians. This might be applicable to Greece’s situation, despite the fact that the country is the origin of democracy.
According to GPC 2013, 90% of respondents in Greece believed political parties were corrupt, and 95.5% of the people participating in Legatum’s 2014 survey perceived government and business to be corrupt. So corruption in Greece seems to be more severe than in Thailand.
However, while Thailand reacted to corruption with the coup eight months ago, the majority of Greek people have put their trust in the hands of a political party that was formally founded only in 2012. It could be said that the majority of constituents in Greece perceive Syriza to be different from the old political parties which were associated with corruption for decades.
Although it is too soon to say whether Greece might be about to leave the corruption trap, considering that some of Syriza’s policies have not been well-received by those both inside and outside the country, the fact that Greeks still have confidence in democracy is promising.
As for young democracies like Thailand, it is difficult to imagine how people can develop trust in politicians and, more importantly, democracy, if national politics are constantly interfered with via undemocratic means.
Thailand has no Syriza; an alternative political party that is perceived to be separate from the political establishment. So, unless there is a change that induces people to have confidence in politicians and democracy, there is no exit from corruption the trap.
Boonwara Sumano is a research fellow with the Thailand Development Research Institute (TDRI). The views expressed are her own.Policy analyses from the TDRI appear in the Bangkok Post on alternate Wednesdays.
First published: ฺBangkok Post, February 18, 2015