An unexpected and path-breaking electoral-regime change in Malaysia last week signifies a global shift against corrupt politicians and corrupt governments. Malaysian voters overwhelmingly ousted the never-before-defeated United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) and replaced it with a fresh coalition led by Mahathir Mohamad, a 92-year old former prime minister (and former head of the UMNO) who had campaigned starkly against his successor and protégé’s blatant thefts from the people of their prosperous Southeast Asian country.
Najib Razak, the deposed prime minister and electoral loser, is accused by Malaysian and U.S. prosecutors of diverting as much as US$2-billion of public funds for private use, and for living lavishly, along with his cronies. Since the electoral overturn, Mr. Razak and his wife have been placed under virtual house arrest in the capital, Kuala Lumpur. Raids on his home and the homes of several associates yielded 72 suitcases stuffed with cash and jewels. Mr. Mahathir promises to clean house and then turn the governance of the far-flung state over to Anwar Ibrahim, a sometime-deputy prime minister who fell out years ago with Mr. Mathathir, and also with Mr. Razak, and has been jailed twice for long periods on trumped-up charges. He has now received a full royal pardon, and expects to re-enter local politics after winning a parliamentary seat.
There is no starker example in recent months of voters throwing out bad politicians because of disgust over corruption. Malaysia’s result is also remarkable because its people are 62-per-cent Malay speaking; the UMNO was created in order to give power and preferential access to jobs to the Malays. Now, the long-marginalized Chinese (11 per cent) and Hindu-speaking (6 per cent) minorities have joined with large numbers of Malays to reject corrupt politics and naked chauvinism.
That result shows the power of a new anti-corruption movement that is rising across the globe. This month, Muqtada al-Sadr’s coalition in Iraq emerged victorious in another electoral scramble after campaigning against corruption. In April, Costa Rica’s election also hinged on corruption, with voters – again, unexpectedly – avoiding a candidate suspected of ties to graft in favor of an untainted, unassuming writer and development expert. In next-door Nicaragua, students are now leading protests against the Sandinista government of President Daniel Ortega and his vice-president wife because of corruption and authoritarianism. Nearby, too, in Guatemala, voters in 2015 ousted President Otto Perez Molina because of his administration’s blatant graft. Voters have battled vigorously, but so far unsuccessfully, to prevent Honduran President’s Juan Orlando Hernandez’s re-election in 2017.
Farther south in the Western Hemisphere, Peruvian legislators forced the resignation of Princeton-trained President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski, accused of taking of bribes from Odebrecht, South America’s largest construction company. In Brazil, where Odebrecht is based, the efforts of crusading prosecutors and judges, including Sergio Fernando Moro, have managed to incarcerate more than 150 politicians, managers and corporate executives for soliciting bribes from Odebrecht and a state-owned petroleum company. Mr. Moro, whose efforts have been surprisingly upheld by an appeals court and the Brazilian Supreme Court, even jailed beloved former president Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, who had planned to run in his country’s upcoming October election.
This July’s presidential election in Mexico will probably be decided as much by an anti-corruption upsurge as by the personalities of the contenders. Leading in the polls is leftist Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, former mayor of Mexico City. His main opponents belong to the largely discredited Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) and a new centre-right coalition. Outgoing President Enrique Pena Nieto, of the long-ruling PRI, has not been able to evade suspicions of corrupt dealings.
South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma was forced from office in February by his own African National Congress (ANC), frightened as its leaders were that they would otherwise plummet to defeat in a 2019 poll. In Mr. Zuma’s place, the ANC installed Cyril Ramaphosa, a very wealthy entrepreneur and former trade union leader with an unblemished reputation. Mr. Zuma will now be tried on 783 counts of corruption dating from the 1990s, and for allowing a trio of Indian entrepreneurs to corrupt and capture the ruling apparatus of the South African state since 2008.
Elsewhere in Africa, especially in Nigeria, the 2015 election result hinged on corruption even though the election of President Muhammadu Buhari has not produced the kinds of successful anti-corruption results that were initially anticipated, and that he promised. Despite his apparent ill health, Mr. Buhari is standing standing for election again next year, still promising to clean up his country’s corruption.
Electorates have long tolerated corrupt governance. Despite the persistence of corruption in governments around the world, the Malaysian result is a strong indication that intolerance of fraud and graft is rising, and that the days of impunity for political theft are receding.
This post was first published, under another title, in the Globe & Mail, May 25, 2018