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Columns

Politician-eating beasts

Moises Naim

fieras come politicos2.jpg

Moisés Naím / El País

Most animals do not eat human flesh. But some do. It’s said that once a tiger, a lion or a leopard incorporates homo sapiens into its diet, it becomes a man-eater. Some say that once they develop a taste for it, they can’t stop.

Something similar is happening in politics. Once the political system in some countries learns how to toss out a head of state, it seems to develop a taste for it, and starts doing it again and again. The act becomes a sort of ritual sacrifice that takes place within the courts, the legislature, and the media, as well as in the streets. The proliferation of these “politician-eating” beasts appears to be a worldwide phenomenon. But why?

Many nations across the globe are dealing with a volatile mixture of social unrest, polarization, and retaliatory politics in addition to a widespread backlash against politics (and politicians) in general. This has created the perfect breeding ground for the types of sudden uprisings we are seeing against many rulers, which culminate in impeachment, incarceration, and, in some cases, death. As we know, the politician-eating beast uses social media as a powerful weapon to corner its prey. We also know that voter frustration is neither artificial nor capricious: economic uncertainty, inequality, corruption, and poor government performance have whetted the appetite of the politician-eating beast.

Sometimes it can be salutary to get rid of bad presidents before the end of their term. This should be applauded, not condemned. Brazil, for example, owes a lot to the judges who fought some of the country’s most powerful politicians and businessmen and managed to send them to prison. And we shouldn’t forget the hundreds of thousands of Brazilians – outraged by widespread corruption – who took to the streets and created the atmosphere that led to President Dilma Rousseff’s impeachment. Perhaps most intriguing, the same Brazilian politician-eating beast that inadvertently opened the way for President Jair Bolsonaro could devour him, too.

In Central America, the natural habitat of nearly half of all former presidents appears to be prison. According to the Mexican newspaper El Universal, of the 42 presidents who governed Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama between 1990 and 2018, 19 have been, or remain, in jail.

In South America, Peru makes a fascinating case study. President Pedro Pablo Kuczysnki was forced to resign in 2018 and was recently sentenced to three years of house arrest. Former President Ollanta Humala was also imprisoned, as was his wife Nadine Heredia. Alejandro Toledo is a fugitive from the Peruvian justice system. Since 2017 the authorities have been requesting his extradition from the US government. His wife, Eliane Karp, is wanted on an arrest warrant and is staying abroad. Keiko Fujimori, the leader of the opposition, has been sentenced to three years of house arrest, while her father, former President Alberto Fujimori, continues to serve a 25-year sentence. Prison would have likely been the fate of twice president Alan Garcia, had he not, just a few weeks ago, turned a gun on himself when the police arrived at his house to arrest him.

Unfortunately, this is not just a Latin American phenomenon, it is a global trend. The politician-eating beast is also haunting Europe. And Asia, too. Park Geun-hye, 67, accused of corruption, was forced to resign as president of South Korea and is serving a 24-year sentence, which in her case amounts to life imprisonment. Lee Myung-Bak, one of her predecessors, was tried for corruption and sentenced to 15 years, while another former president, Roh Moo-Hyun, also implicated in a corruption scandal, committed suicide. In Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia there are similar stories.

One of the surprises of all these coups is the absence of the military. In the past, generals were central players. Not anymore. Now it’s the people in the streets and the judges in the courts. The problem is that, sometimes, the pressure from the streets overflows into the courts, and the judges, instead of seeking justice, simply aid and abet the beast.

What can we make of all this? First, that impunity is not as rampant as most believe. Many corrupt politicians end up in prison. Second, it doesn’t seem to be making a dent in the levels of corruption. Nothing seems to indicate that it has diminished. Third, in these judicial crusades against corrupt officials, often fueled by the indignation of the people on the street, surely injustices are being committed. Fourth: accusations of corruption are part of the arsenal used by politicians against their adversaries.

What to do? We must not limit judicial activism against the corrupt, but rather depoliticize it. The most powerful weapons against corruption are public policies that inhibit it. Public policies should increase the transparency of officials’ decisions and reduce their ability to operate with impunity. Lastly we should promote the scrutiny of public officials by watchdog groups, the media and non-governmental organizations.

Alas, this isn’t nearly as entertaining as watching the politician-eating beast devouring its next victim. But it’s much healthier.