Is the judicial prosecution of corrupt elites different in democracies than in autocracies? It is widely believed that democratic institutions improve judicial accountability of corrupt politicians, but this claim has not been systematically tested. Using a game theoretical model, I find that incumbents in democracies are more likely to prosecute their challengers than autocrats. Contrary to what existing research has suggested, however, this can be attributed to the fact that democracies constrain executives in their use of extra-legal---and coercive---means to curb opposition, and not necessarily because democracies increase oversight of those in power.
I test the implications of the model using an original dataset of judicial investigations of Mexican governors that exploits temporal and geographical variation of regime type at the subnational level. I find that constrained governors prosecute their predecessors at higher rates than unconstrained governors, and that such prosecutions are consistent with a politicized use of the judicial system. The theory presented here identifies the mechanism by which institutions shape the appeal of the judiciary as a means to curb competition, and underscores how prosecutors enable incumbents to strategically prosecute opponents. Furthermore, the evidence of politicized use of prosecution even in democratic settings challenges the assumption that prosecuting corrupt politicians is always an instance of accountability.
I conclude my project by looking at the consequences of judicial processes on the relationship between citizens and their governments. Current literature predicts that prosecuting a corrupt politician can increase the trust that citizens place on the government and its institutions. I study two cases of spectacular judicial prosecutions in Mexico: one during the authoritarian period and one that occurred after the transition to democracy. The overwhelming amount of evidence against those being prosecuted makes these cases critical to understand when judicial prosecution translates into accountability. I find that in both cases the politicians were regarded as corrupt and their judicial processes were considered legally adequate. Yet the public deemed that both prosecutions had an ulterior authoritarian motive: to concentrate power in the hands of the executive. These reactions reveal that holding politicians accountable can actually reproduce preexisting ideas of the use of public power for private gain. Fundamentally, this happens even in the presence of institutions that should avoid the political use of prosecution, such as an independent judiciary.