, Volume 36, Issue 4, pp 357-377

Access, accountability and authority: Corruption and the democratic process

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Abstract

Democratic systems face the challenge of sustainingtheir political authority while simultaneouslyproviding access to the political system for theircitizens, and ensuring existence of mechanisms for theformal and political accountability of those inoffice. The connections between these threecomponents, and between them and corruption, arecomplex. The paper suggests ways in whichaccountability may undermine authority through theblurring of distinctions between formal and politicalaccountability, by ham-stringing politicalinstitutions, by creating incentives for corruptpractices, and by politicising accusations ofcorruption. Access can be similarly destabilising andcorrupting, where trust is low and compliance withrules weak; and a basic problem with securing highlevels of trust is that the materials from which suchtrust is manufactured are often the very things whichaccountability mechanisms regard as corrupt – localnetworks, clientelism, and personal loyalties andfriendships. In democratising states, attackingthese elements can eradicate rather than enhance thebasis for well-regulated access.Different democratic systems have evolved differentways of balancing these three components. Theparticular institutional form the balance takes willhave a major impact on the types of corruption thesystem will face, and on the solutions which areappropriate. However, the tendency in internationalcircles is for one highly idiosyncratic understandingof this balance to hold sway, with potentiallydestabilising consequences when applied to theanalysis of corruption, especially in democratisingstates. The paper concludes that attempts to reduce corruptionand increase accountability by increasingparticipation and access are flawed. Access mayincrease the risk of corruption, while accountabilityremains a classic public good on which free-ridingwill be widespread. Corruption control in democracieswill not be solved by more democracy – indeed, itmight need less.