360° Analysis

Refocusing the Public’s Perception of Corruption


November 09, 2012 05:44 EDT

Mexico’s President-Elect Pena Nieto has bold plans to reshuffle public perception of corruption away from the top leadership and towards the local government.

Peña Nieto`s Three Opening Gambits

Mexican President-Elect Enrique Peña Nieto seems to have already prepared three term-opening political gambits. They all hinge on a re-negotiation of corruption in Mexico. The combined success of this opening flurry may well determine the overall success of the new regime. If these initial efforts prove successful, we will presumably see a “stronger” Mexico in the international arena. He may succeed in managing the nation’s “corruption” in a much more clever manner than the nation`s current president. Yet, Peña Nieto is no magician able to make corruption simply disappear; rather, he will merely reshuffle its focus, similar to a political broom sweeping dirt under the rug.

His first move calls for government transparency: new laws emphasizing tighter oversight of local government would be paired with expanded access to public information. South Africa offers a clear example of these phenomena: their freedom of information laws spurred the creation of publically accessible legal institutions that track documents dating all the way from the apartheid era. South African journalists have also used these laws, with guidance from freedom of information institutions, in order to expose high level corruption in the ruling government. But, Peña Nieto must beware of endangering his own party or his freedom of information gambit may become a crippling shot in the foot of the new government.

Second, Peña Nieto has made gestures toward joining the recent policy shift among Latin American nations in forwarding debate on the legalization of narcotics. In this second piece of policy, the language of “market solutions” appeals to another sense of open government that compliments the incoming government`s freedom of information policy. As with the new freedom of information policy, however, there is a strong danger that this “open” narcotics policy may cause a backlash from Mexican society wary of outright legalization. Will the virtue of “open markets” and the vice of overt alliance-making with cartels meet face to face in a divisive public debate over the heart and soul of the nation?

Third, substantial plans to further militarize Mexican cities, chiefly with a new paramilitary organization of 40,000 “national gendarmerie,” will be combined with Peña Nieto´s promise to shift military efforts away from targeting cartel leaders and toward the essential, but less glorious task of violent crime prevention.

Yet, there is cause for concern that the administration`s transparency policy focused on local security oversight would divert public attention away from high-level political corruption. Corruption is a political challenge internationally, offering opportunities and pitfalls that typically favor elite politicians – although the South African case shows how these efforts to gain the good will of civil society can backfire. The cases of Nigeria and eastern Europe, likewise, offer lessons that Peña Nieto`s government would only ignore at its own political peril.

The Public Perception of Domestic Corruption

Government policy and societal norms work together to deflect responsibility for corruption away from politicians. Gordon Daniel Smith describes how “Nigerians see the repercussions of corruption in everyday life as both caused by and contributing to the demise of morality. The perception that corruption is rooted in social amorality obscures the political and economic underpinnings of inequality, while paradoxically creating hope.”  Rather than blame the government official for corruption, Nigerians would more likely lament the degradation of solid moral principles in society.

Dirk Tanzler’s writing on European corruption echoes Smith`s conclusion in the Nigerian case.  He claims that the eastern European underclasses tend to defend their own acts of petty corruption by means of cynicism.  Many find economic conditions so limiting and grand corruption so rampant that their own abuse of political power for personal gain becomes an act of retribution against a failed system and its amoral elites. Corruption is justified by the illegitimacy of public leaders.  Tanzler’s description goes further than Smith’s, arguing that amorality in society both perpetuates and excuses corruption simultaneously. Since it both describes the curse and is capable in itself of distracting public attention away from the roots of the problem, it thus further deepens the scourge of corruption.

We hear the same logic of Tänzler`s eastern European underclass when Morris writes that in Mexico, “not only does corruption constitute a mechanism of everyday survival as often noted, but it also becomes a way to get ahead and exploit the system’s weaknesses for personal gain. Hence, while the public may condemn corruption, they nonetheless are quick to engage in it when the course lays open to them, justifying their actions by pointing to the fact that public officials and others engage in similar conduct.”

Avoiding Public Perceptions of Corruption through an Alliance with the Middle Class

One goal of Peña Nieto`s move to gain the favor of civil society is to make the public drama of corruption a local affair. As a population relatively unexposed to narco-violence, the middle class`s investment in the new government`s policy would mean “seeing no evil” in a country where evil is still a social reality. Insulated from the direct effects of government abuse, the middle class`s allegiance to Peña Nieto`s social policies would, ironically, further alienate it from the manufacturing and agricultural classes, which risk losing wages and subsidies at the enrichment of the federal government.  If the middle class accepts Peña Nieto’s pledge against petty corruption as legitimate, it may in fact be endorsing corruption on a much larger scale.

Still, Peña Nieto cannot yet count on middle class support for his initial agenda. Police corruption limits the ability of the middle class to invest in anti-corruption politics without tainting itself. The legalization of narcotics might allow the entrance of “another” middle class whose “corrupt lifestyles” affront traditional values of a Catholic and family-centered society. In comparing public toleration of open narcotics use in Mexico to public toleration of open homosexuality, we find that both habits are labeled as “unnatural” by conservative Mexican politicians. A poll by the newspaper El Universal, showed that only half of the urbanites polled supported a measure in 2009 to legalize same-sex marriage in Mexico City. It should be noted that in the case of gay marriage, the leftist Party of the Democratic Revolution (PRD) did not necessarily encourage public debate. Even in rural Mexican communities where narcotics-centered corruption is more often tolerated and homosexuality less often, the weight of further surveillance by the new national gendarmerie may backfire. If the potential government crackdown on local government corruption aggravates fragile rural communities, the new government may lose some rural supporters without gaining the loyalty of the middle class.

Civil society might profit politically and economically from a crackdown on local corruption. But for the middle class, such profits can only be relative. If the new national gendarmerie is embraced, even temporarily, as a “good neighbor” to civil society, then anti-corruption reform may be viewed as legitimate by an optimistic middle class. But who is to say that such optimism would itself be legitimate, and not simply the side effect of a middle class shedding its guilty successes in a country racked with injustice, through political tinkering? In either case, a successful alliance with Mexican civil society at the start of his term may just make or break the incoming Peña Nieto regime.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


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