Ruling through scandal: Authoritarian motives in democratic accountability

Is prosecuting a corrupt politician synonymous with holding him accountable? Cur- rent literature suggests that lawfully prosecuting malfeasance signals that democratic accountability functions as it should, which in turn can improve the relationship between citizens and their governmental institutions. Contrary to this expectation, I argue that citizens can find judicial processes legally adequate and even desirable, but also authoritarian. This ambivalence further alienates citizens from their governments by associating the lawful prosecution of corruption with despotic power, instead of considering it an instance of accountability. I substantiate this argument by presenting two instances of prosecutions of notoriously corrupt politicians that elicited very similar reactions. In both cases, accounts in the media regarded the arrests as lawful and necessary, yet at the same time they identified an authoritarian motive behind those arrests. These reactions are found even in the presence of democratic institutions that are expected to limit the coercive power of the executive. I conclude by suggesting that the expectations that we place on institutions that punish corruption might need to consider contextual variables to assess their efficacy, such as possible legacies of authoritarianism in the form of political language and memory.

I See Right Through You: The Logic and Consequences of Spurious Criminal Charges

(with Yuna Blajer)

In this paper, we analyze the logic and consequences of raising blatantly spurious judicial charges. First, we situate false charges as a specific type of strategic manipulation of the judiciary, distinct from allocating resources and dictating priorities of investigation (often observed in democracies) and different from prosecuting an opponent for political benefit by bringing up charges that are credible or real (often observed in authoritarian regimes). We argue that false charges provide political benefits that go well beyond the direct elimination of political competition and popularity boosts. Importantly, false charges allow the incumbent to decide when and why to drop the charges or release the accused, thus granting him control of the political spectrum without compromising popularity. Second, we find that the constant reliance on false charges during an authoritarian era can lead to a dysfunctional judiciary after a transition to democracy, where false charges are constantly raised even in the absence of a strategic reason to do so. In a theory-building exercise, we present two case studies of persons who were jailed under charges that were patently false in Mexico under authoritarianism and democracy.