Political Corruption: Anyone around to bell the cat?

During the electoral campaign last year, statements were being made in public gatherings that some actions by politicians might land them into jail.

Coming from SAJ, himself a barrister, such a statement started carrying conviction in the population that boundaries might effectively have been transgressed, That the time had come to clean up the Aegean stables of political corruption.

Since then, we have seen a number of police investigations into alleged cases of misappropriations. These cases may or may not be condemned by the law courts. It all depends on the type of evidence brought to sustain the allegations. Is this supposed to be a deterrent to political crime in future? Instead of all of this, was it necessary rather to quickly reform the system of political decision-making and make it fool-proof enough to nip in the bud any political temptation to walk away with “crime”?

Political corruption – a global phenomenon

Yet, when we look at the global level, from China to the United States, from Europe to South Africa and Latin America, politics is inextricably tied up with huge amounts of corruption. No doubt, politics is important for other purposes, but misgovernance is also often an integral part of it. With the connivance of officials whom they appoint to high offices, politicians so deliberately obscure the decision-making process that one would hardly come to know that corruption has actually taken place. Or, if it is all too clear finally that this has indeed been the case, they would have taken precautions enough to make themselves immune from being found personally at fault.

It is this factor that has crippled numerous populations in Africa, Asia and Latin America into lives of utter poverty. Somehow, politicians immersed into the now fanciful luxurious lives they lead, surrounded by their sycophantic coteries, indulge in a display of personal power to the point of becoming oblivious of the lower rungs of the ladder by which they ascended to power. The illusion of hubris is so great, it seems, that the concerned politicians lose sight of the mission they initially gave themselves.

Who pays the price?

Victims abound. The view is that there is a positive correlation between the degree of political corruption in a country and its economic backwardness. Cases are legion in our immediate neighbourhood.

On the one hand, big corporations, highly paid executives and financiers, tax evaders and the sort – beneficiaries of political support – skim off the cream of nations’ earnings to themselves with the help of political connivances of all sorts.

On the other, entire countries run into successive and deeper cycles of poverty. Children are enslaved from a very tender age into labour camps. Women are forced into prostitution to earn a living. Men are left to themselves, unemployed or lucky to join the now casual labour force. There’s barely any national education system worth its name and health care is a luxury few can afford. The UN estimates that there are currently 60 million people in slavery across the world.

Organized systems of corruption

Given the global scale of the problem, the question arises whether it is a realistic objective to fight political corruption and all the harm it inflicts upon society. Will it not, if dealt with by one set of strong rules, reincarnate itself in some other form and wreak the work of destruction all the same?

Besides, powerful companies having huge means are reputed to find numerous ways to secure advantages for themselves at the cost of the public. In the US, for example, it is not unlawful for companies to “lobby” politicians or groups of them to obtain advantages which end up lining pockets richly on both the sides. Mauritius must have itself used such paid lobbies to get the American government to concede access for our sugar to the US market or to prevent us getting excluded from the AGOA.

These “lobbies” or power brokers persuade lawmakers to take decisions in such a manner as to favour unduly certain companies or sectors of activity. But, while they unreasonably enrich companies whose agents they are, they are also capable of ending up with a gridlock in government decision-making, as it happened in 2013 when the US government faced an unprecedented situation of failing to honour its financial obligations. They also end up with the pathological condition in which US companies see themselves waging war against each other today to secure overlapping political advantages.

Many are the governments and regulators who are richly rewarded for making themselves “available”. So, it is not only corrupt politicians who suck away the cardinal virtues on which the system should have operated. Public policies are also wilfully distorted by a whole gamut of official corrupters acting in tandem or even in their own private capacities, unknown to corrupting politicians themselves.

Why does manna pour down from heaven on the selected few?

Thus, you see taxes decreased for those who did not ask for it. Did we not see in our own case, the rate of direct tax reduced at one stage to 15% uniformly for both individuals and corporates? Yet, before the decision was taken, nobody in the corporate sector had been asking for such a drastic reduction which was compensated for, due to the resulting shortfall in government’s revenue, by lifting up indirect taxes on the public in the form of a more extensive sales tax.

Not surprisingly, did not capital gains tax get abolished for long, only to be restored in 2011, after heaps of such gains had already been appropriated by large real estate developers, legally? Similarly, regulations get modified to allow selected entrepreneurs to damage the environment, which is to the detriment of the public. Decision-makers, it seems, always have the flexibility to bring back restrictions to prevent intruders getting into the reserved space for the privileged few of yore.

You will also see rules changed unexpectedly because, unknown to the public, “friends” who have already filled the chests of political parties are scheduled to grab up the benefits from those changes. Politicians have plenty of arrows in their quivers with which to gratify their “well-wishers”. Most of this is at great public expense: monopolies are created; delimitations of zones are changed; big “infrastructure projects” are undertaken to facilitate selected market entries… We are no longer living in the era when political bribing consisted of getting certain private roads tarred at public expense. Goal posts have moved up much higher.

This sort of selective conferring of special privileges and benefits has kept happening in diverse countries in the name of “progress”. The scandalous episode of “cash for questions” in the UK Parliament was unearthed fairly recently. Rupert Murdoch was not only silently admiring, from his pulpit in the media, the doings of favoured governments, whether in the US or in the UK. He redeemed himself finally by giving up further inroads he would have made in the media, closing down one of his best-selling indecently prying newspapers and passing on the baton now to his family members.

In the US, the pharmaceutical industry got the Medicare Modernisation Act passed in 2003 to confer new prescription-drug benefits on millions of older Americans without controlling the implied huge costs to the Treasury by way of means-testing or the like. It is estimated this will yield $242 billion over 10 years to the industry, not a mean return on the $130 million spent by it to lobby the enactment of this law. When public funds change hands this way, it should be clear why ordinary taxpayers end up taking the resulting burden.

Let us shun public corruption sincerely

Given the scale of damage inflicted on the public due to the political-business nexus, should we despair that the situation is irremediable? Not so, if there is a real will to grapple with the insidious infiltration of corruption in public life, things can change for the better.

Transparency International ranks countries according to the perceived level of their public sector corruption. Zero is the score attributed to the most highly corrupt country while 100 is for the very clean one.

Out of 175 countries surveyed in 2014, Mauritius was ranked 47 with a total score of 54. We have improved our score which was 52 in 2013. What one observes from this classification of countries is that there are some of them which stick at the top from year to year, such as Denmark, New Zealand, Finland, Sweden, Norway, Switzerland, Singapore, Netherlands, Luxembourg and others, scoring between 92 and 82. They are mostly countries which are intolerant of corruption and have adopted state policies that does not make it profitable to secure benefits by bypassing a strictly regimented regime of public governance. By contrast, countries whose public governance is unpredictable are at the bottom: North Korea and Somalia. We have a clear choice to make.

We should consider ourselves happy to be well among the first 50 countries assessed by Transparency. Mauritius is a fundamentally highly vulnerable country which has acquired a lot of international good standing by dint of hard work to improve our governance framework. This improvement has helped us conduct international business without being stigmatized but we remain exposed to it because we are not a powerful country like the US. We have to travel along this road for long if we want to succeed like Singapore. It is not impossible for us to keep ourselves in good company. We can start doing so by not shooting ourselves in the feet and by not washing suspected dirty linen on the street.

*  Published in print edition on 26 June 2015

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