Deep cleansing

There are no easy fixes for the tangle of politics and criminality

When politicians are bad, they do better. That's the dispiriting conclusion reached by civil society watchdogs who studied the correlation between criminality, money and political careers. The Association for Democratic Reforms and National Election Watch have analysed candidate affidavits since 2004, and they find that "clean" candidates have a 12 per cent chance of winning, while for others with criminal records, the figure rose to 23 per cent. Roughly 74 per cent of candidates with criminal records got tickets from their parties for a second time, the study has found. This isn't entirely surprising, because after a five-year term, a legislator's assets have, on average, seen a 1,000 per cent increase, and those with criminal records are clearly wealthier than the others. This access to liquid financial resources, in turn, strengthens their campaigns further.

This study confirms all the anecdata about the tight knot of money and muscle power and political control. But what are the causes of this phenomenon? If there are no electoral repercussions for illegal behaviour, then the very concept of democratic accountability would seem suspect. Some suggest that it is a lack of information that stops voters from rejecting criminal candidates. But studies have also shown that prior knowledge about a candidate's transgressions does not significantly affect voting outcomes. In other words, voters often seem to be driven by factors other than candidates' corruption or use of brute force. In contexts where social divisions are strong, patronage is the prime motivator. Criminal backgrounds can then, paradoxically, convey greater capacity to look out for the group interest. Being able to command force can help politicians solve problems, intervene with state officials, do favours, deal with rivals, arbitrate disputes etc in other words, entrench their positions in the economy of influence that all political leaders compete in.

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