When corruption does not make candidates lose votes

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Saturday, August 11, 2018

By Sergio Berensztein, political consultant and professor (*)

How do corruption scandals impact electoral processes? Can the scandal of the notebooks in Argentina affect the electoral preferences in the upcoming presidential elections of 2019? The experience in Latin America, and even in more mature democracies, suggests that the electoral performances of leaders or political forces involved in cases of corruption, even with broad media coverage, do not necessarily vary significantly, unless they imply a substantial change in the match system. Moreover, in many cases sympathetic citizens or members of a political force tend to cohere in the face of allegations of corruption, denying their credibility and legitimacy. Will something similar happen in Argentina?

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The first reference, almost inevitable, is Brazil. Lula, despite the Lava Jato scandal for which he was convicted and imprisoned, continues to be the candidate with the greatest support for the elections on October 7. Moreover, last weekend the PT proclaimed his candidacy for president. His leadership is stronger than ever, largely because no successor with similar electoral potential emerged (nor has Lula ever made any effort to promote it). Even one of the main reasons why Dilma was his successor is that it did not imply a challenge for his leadership within the PT in particular and the left in general. The certain thing is that, with the contrasting antecedent of Collor de Melo, that having been destitute maintained then a totally secondary role within the Brazilian political establishment, the case of Lula da Silva can become a mirror for Cristina Fernández de Kirchner.

Another case to consider is Peru, where despite Alberto Fujimori was in prison for many years, his daughter became one of the most influential policies in the country. In fact, Fujimorism survived the collapse generated by the scandal of the videos of the dismal intelligence chief of the regime, Vladimir Montesinos. Recall that a deep plot of corruption and extortion was revealed that included businessmen, judges, politicians, journalists and other members of the Peruvian establishment. As it happened then in the case of Brazil, and even with the enormous differences in ideological terms and partisan histories (not to mention the nature of the respective leaderships), both Lula and Fujimori managed to build political forces that overcame the crisis derived from the scandals of corruption of which its leaders were protagonists.

The case of Mexico also allows us to draw some lessons regarding the capacity of political forces to maintain, at least for a long time, their electoral appeal beyond corruption scandals. In particular, the PRI (Institutional Revolutionary Party) maintained for a long time a dominant position in the Mexican political system, although cases of enormous severity erupted after the presidency of Carlos Salinas de Gortari (1989-1994). It is true that in the year 2000 there was finally an alternation in power, with the triumph of Vicente Fox (National Action Party, PAN). But twelve years later, Enrique Peña Nieto (PRI) returned to power, although the question of corruption did not stop worsening. In fact, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (MORENA) has just triumphed based on a program that emphasizes the fight against corruption. But the PRI survived as a competitive force for almost three decades in the framework of a process of democratic opening and slow but consistent progress of greater controls by the press and civil society.

The United States also allows extrapolating some interesting lessons. After the huge Watergate scandal, the Republican Party managed to maintain its competitiveness and eventually get rid of that event, especially after the triumph of Ronald Reagan (1980). Gerald Ford, former vice president and successor of Richard Nixon, won 48% of the votes in the November 2, 1976 election, in which James Carter emerged victorious. Two decades later, Al Gore (another vice president of a government full of corruption scandals like Bill Clinton, including the impeachment case of Monica Lewinsky), lost to George W. Bush after a very controversial failure of the justice regarding the votes in the state of Florida, although in fact the election won in terms of the popular vote (remember that in the US the president emerges from the vote of the state delegates to the Electoral College). In other words, neither the Republican Party in the 1970s nor the Democrat in the 1990s experienced significant losses in their electoral appeal as a result of highly visible cases of corruption.

Finally, with the Popular Party (PP) in Spain something similar seems to happen. Mariano Rajoy had to resign over the case of illegal campaign financing after multiple similar scandals. And the party system has been in a process of fragmentation for a long time, as evidenced by the emergence of Podemos on the left and Citizens on the right center. However, the PP continues to be a relevant force and can even be competitive for the next electoral process.

Both Lula and Fujimori managed to build political forces that overcame the crises stemming from the corruption scandals of which their leaders were protagonists.

It is true that there are occasions when corruption scandals trigger very deep governance crises and even the collapse of the existing party system. The Italy of the Mani Pulite is the most important example. It is also true that in countries of greater political maturity, such as the Nordic countries, the use of a credit card for personal expenses can unleash resignations of high officials and even falls of governments. But, at least in principle, there are more cases in which corruption does not produce deep crises. If we extend the analysis framework to Africa and Asia, the conclusion would be much more conclusive.

What will happen in Argentina? It is too early to know. But, based on what happens in other democracies, one can conclude that at least until now the issue of corruption did not have a determining weight in the electoral preferences. Maybe yes in the public opinion. But in the continent of the "steal but do", the determinants of the vote seem to be focused on issues of economic order and political identity.

(*) Dr. Berensztein has more than 30 publications on political reform, institutional development, and the political economy of structural reforms in Latin America. He is frequently consulted by major national and international media outlets and has also delivered lectures on the Argentine political situation in more than forty universities and research centers around the world.

This opinion piece was first published in www.tn.com.ar