Ohio State University

Democracy With a Side of Corruption: the Political Menu of Argentina by Sunder Sai @ The Ohio State University



What’s cooking in Argentina’s political kitchen? Democracy with a side of corruption is certainly featured on the menu. Here in this post I am bringing out the handy-dandy democratic backsliding magnifying glass to take a closer look at this country, its politics, and its issues.

It is 2018 and the foul stench of corruption is in the air. That’s right folks – your local politicians are in handcuffs. Argentines are shocked as at least five prominent former officials have been taken into custody on potential corruption charges. Some are calling it the greatest instance in Argentine history of numerous public officials detained in such a small time frame. It does not look like the witch-hunt is stopping anytime soon.

The officials, including a former Vice President and former minister, have been accused of misappropriating public funds during their time in office. This and much more leads us to ask the ultimate question: is democracy backsliding in Argentina? I argue that the purge of corrupt politicians actually enhances democracy and reestablishes democratic values in country.

Researchers Daniel Levitsky and Steven Ziblatt portray corrupt politics in the analogy of a soccer game in their book How Democracies Die. Political agents are key players on the field, encompassing both allies and opponents. The corrupt official will be the one to capture the referee and also change the rules of the game. These corrupt politicians for many years have been able to get away with financial manipulation at the expense of the Argentine citizens. By money laundering, buying off key players, and strong-handed coercion tactics the politicians are able to manipulate the system in ways that benefit them.

Because they are able to get away with all of this, one may say that Argentine democracy is backsliding. At first glance, this may be true – but the fact that these corrupt individuals have been captured, removed from the game, and are being prosecuted says a lot about the changing Argentine system. The arrests themselves are indications of a promising future for Argentina as it re-establishes its democratic values. Furthermore, it sets an example to the rest of government and other officials: don’t break the rules or you will be sent to jail.

In his work, researcher Ozan Vorol points to the judicial review processes and justices as instrumental in democratic backsliding. For years Argentine judges have sat on the federal bench and let cases of corruption slide, leaving politicians unchecked and allowing them to reign freely over the system. In fact, the Argentine judicial process does not require judges to determine deadlines on cases. The process also does not involve much judicial oversight on the cases either. This creates a recipe for disaster, corruption, and as Varole points out – democratic backsliding.

Analysts Aziz Huq and Thomas Ginsburg also describe in their research how the justice system is a key tool in the context of authoritarianism and loss of democratic values. Judicial review and trials serve as a form of checks and balances, they argue. These checks and balances keep politicians in line, prevent them from cheating the system, and can enhance democracy.

It is important to recognize that the tides have turned, however. For the first time in a long time the justices are now doing their jobs. They are actively investigating cases and even attempting to change the judicial system by improving oversight. For example, former Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner is now being investigated in regards to embezzlement, bribery, and money laundering charges. It goes to show that nowadays no public official in Argentina is exempt form the law, no matter how powerful they are. This, along with the arrests of other prominent officials, demonstrates how the justice system is returning to its values of democracy.

Not so fast though. Does Argentina’s corruption purge seem a little too good to be true? Just because the nation is taking the right steps to turn the tides of democratic erosion doesn’t mean that there are more variables at play that could show otherwise. In fact, many accuse current president Mauricio Macri of using the judicial system to eliminate his opposition.

If true, Mr. Macri is very cleverly manipulating the political arena. Going back to the analogy of the soccer game, Levitsky and Ziblatt state that “sidelining key players” is a key tactic authoritarian-like leaders employ to remain in power. By defaming politicians and using non-political crimes, star players are taken off the field and the opposition is weakened or nearly wiped out according to Levitsky and Ziblatt.

Varol resonates with these arguments, arguing that prosecuting the opposition ultimately serves to delegitimize them. The trial process may take many years to sort out and the opposition’s reputation is ultimately destroyed, while the current leader enjoys their power. Although this is a good argument, nothing has been proven yet in regards to Mr. Macri. There is no evidence supporting this theory and it is only mere speculation.

In the meantime, I believe Argentina has reason to celebrate its recent purge of corrupt officials. Its judicial process is certainly becoming more active and it looks like the tides of democratic backsliding are slowly and surely being reversed. These events ultimately serve as an example and may prevent future corruption as well.

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