Corrupting Accountability

Is the judicial prosecution of corrupt elites different in democracies than in autocracies? It is widely believed that democratic institutions improve judicial account- ability of corrupt politicians, but this claim has not been systematically tested. Using a game theoretical model, this paper finds 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 subnational variation of regime type. 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.