Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš, who took office after campaigning against corruption, despite himself being investigated for having swindled EU funds. [Martin Divisek/EPA]
The delayed anger towards past corruption might be an important part of the explanation for the recent popularity of the authoritarian right.
According to an article in Le Monde Diplomatique Norway, which refers to the “Special Eurobarometer 470. Corruption” published by the EU in October 2017, 17% of Swedish citizens claim to personally know of someone who have taken bribes. In Romania, that same number was only 13%. At the same time, 80% of Romanians feel that corruption is a huge societal problem, whereas only 37% of Swedes say the same.
A similar relation is found between the neighbours Austria and the Czech republic. 84% of Czech citizens believe corruption to be a huge problem, but only 19% feel that it has any bearing on their everyday lives, and only 13% have experienced bribes first hand. Compare this with Austria, where 18% feel their everyday lives affected by corruption, and 15% claim to have directly witnessed corruption in the past year. Yet only half of Austrians think it is a problem in their country.
The Eurobarometer challenges the usual story that Eastern European countries are more corrupt and backwards than the western countries. It also points to the power of belief as opposed to experienced reality. Central- and Eastern Europeans think of corruption as a bigger problem even though they personally do not encounter it as frequently as Western Europeans.
The same article mentions a study which has looked at voter behaviour between 1980 and 2016. This study found “no systematic links” between immigration and the popularity of far-right parties, nor anything to indicate that the economy can explain their rise in recent years. It does however find that the belief in widespread corruption has been the clearest indicator for a coming rise of authoritarian right wing parties.
That this belief in widespread corruption seems to be partially detached from the actual presence of corruption can be explained by it simply taking time for people to become aware of what goes on. The article calls this a “cultural delay” an effect in which the experiences of the past disturb how we see the present. Though corruption is in decline in many Eastern European countries, people in these countries on the contrary feel it is becoming much worse, and this will contribute to the undermining of the political system and the rising popularity of the authoritarian right.
While this story is incomplete without a critical analysis of capital and the current economical system to put it into perspective, it certainly provides a very interesting piece of the puzzle. I recommend everyone to check out this article if it’s available in your language.
Source: “Myths and misunderstandings on corruption”, Benjamin Cunningham. Le Monde Diplomatique, Norway, May 2018, pp. 12-14.