By the time you’re reading this, the French people will have made their decision between Marine Le Pen and Emmanuel Macron in the French Presidential election. Whoever the new–incumbent of the Élysée Palace is, the nature of the election campaign has reignited a debate about the politics of populism.
Populist leaders, critics argue, look to exploit legitimate grievances by fostering division in a bid for electoral glory. Advocates, meanwhile, contend that populist politicians merely reflect the oft-ignored needs of the general population.
Marine Le Pen provided an apt example of populist politics throughout her campaign, looking to capitalise on the growing gulf across the Western world between the electorate and the so-called ‘political class’.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong or immoral about the populist approach, but its increasing use as a political method has triggered some interesting conversations about the relationship between corruption and populism. A particularly interesting piece was an analysis by Heinrich Finn of Transparency International in January.
Heinrich argues that the global trend in growing support for populist leaders is a consequence of inequality caused by corruption. These populist leaders, Heinrich alleges, then not only fail to tackle corruption but exacerbate it.
‘Drain the swamp’
There is no greater example of this, Heinrick argues, than Donald Trump’s ascendance to the presidency, which Trump reached primarily on an anti-corruption, and anti-establishment, ticket. Recurrent tropes throughout Trump’s election campaign was the line that Hillary Clinton was immune from prosecution for using a private email server due to her being a part of the established elite, along with the promise to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington D.C and ‘make our government honest once again.’
Heinkrick points out that this anti-corruption rhetoric is at odds with Trump’s actions as president so far. Conflicts of interest between Trump’s business empire and his new role as president have not been addressed, and the expectation is that anti-corruption legislation will be rolled back and diluted, particularly in the financial services industry.
This is common in populist politicians, Heinrich asserts, pointing to similar examples in India, Italy and Poland. Heinrich goes as far to say that Trump’s refusal to resolve his conflicts of interest will enhance, not reduce, corruption.
There’s substance in the notion that populist leaders are elected as a result of the electorate’s hopes of eradicating corruption within a country, and the link between social marginalisation and corruption at the top is a real one. But the notion that populist leaders are the remedy to corrupt practice is unproven.
Steps to curb corruption
Trump may yet confound Heinrich’s theory that corruption flourishes under populist governments and leaders. Whether he will or not, Heinrich proposes a number of suggestions to combat corruption. These include stepping up the fight against those who help launder corrupt money and making the use of secret companies that hide real owners illegal.
He further calls for less political immunity from prosecution, citing the Brazilian corruption scandal as an example. Such steps would certainly help bring about greater transparency. But whether populist leaders – from Turkey to Hungary to the Philippines – will crack down on corruption remains to be seen. It could be that the connection between corruption and the ‘political elite’ is more complex than populist politicians are letting on.
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