18 July 2005
The Varieties of Corruption
By Gwynne Dyer
If you are a politician, there are few more embarrassing
experiences than to be caught at an airport with the equivalent of $100,000
stuffed into your underpants. Only one political gaffe has a higher
embarrassment quotient: being tape-recorded on the phone to a senior
electoral official, as the votes are being counted, asking him to boost
That is the problem that currently besets Philippines President
Gloria Macapagal Arroyo. The phone call was made over a year ago, when
Arroyo squeaked back into the presidency with a majority of only a million
votes, but the existence of the audio recording was only made public by the
ABS-CBN television network last month.
Arroyo’s office immediately released the tape of her election-day
conversation with election commissioner Victoriano Garcellano together with
an explanation that it involved “the illegal bugging and subsequent
electronic doctoring, alteration and revision of that conversation so as to
introduce elements that were not really there.”
In the allegedly doctored version, Arroyo asks Garcellano if her
lead over her rival for the presidency has dropped below the
psychologically important one-million mark. Garcellano replies that it has
already dropped to 900,000, but that several districts have not yet
declared their total vote. “We will do our best,” he says.
Maybe the tape was re-edited and new elements spliced in, or maybe
not, but at the very least Arroyo made the call. She has publicly
apologised for her “lapse of judgment,” but for a candidate to call up an
election official in the middle of the count is not just a lapse of
judgment; it is, in political a hanging offense. Yet it is the
Philippines, not Arroyo, that will probably be left hanging.
Contrast the curious case of the overstuffed underpants in Brazil.
The garment in question belonged to Jose Vieira da Silva, a junior official
in Brazil’s ruling Workers’ Party (PT) who was stopped at Sao Paulo airport
on 9 July. It was the latest in a series of political disasters that began
with accusation early last month by Roberto Jefferson, leader of the small
Labour Party, that the PT was handing out regular monthly payments
(“mensalaos”) equivalent to $12,500 to a number of deputies in the
Brazilian Congress in order to get its legislation through. (The PT does
not have a majority in Congress).
The accusation came as a particular shock because President Luiz
Inacio “Lula” da Silva, Brazil’s first left-wing leader in a generation,
was widely seen as an incorruptible figure. Jefferson himself, while
urging the PT’s chief of staff, Jose Dirceu, to take the blame for the
“mensalaos” and quit, exempted the president from his accusations: “If you
don’t get out of here quickly,” he told Dirceu, “you are going to make a
defendant out of an innocent man, President Lula.”
So Dirceu quit — but then came the underpants episode this month,
and the resignation of the president of the PT, Jose Genoino (whose
politician brother employed the owner of the underpants). Suddenly Lula’s
whole career, and all of the considerable good that he has achieved for
Brazil’s poor, seemed to hang in the balance.
Yet Lula probably won’t go under, for there are varieties of
corruption, and the particular kind that the PT has engaged in is almost
traditional in Brazil. There are several smaller parties in Congress whose
deputies are elected mainly in the more feudal parts of the country, and
who regard political office as a business opportunity. When the governing
party lacks a majority in Congress and their votes are needed to pass
essential legislation, it is
normal to gain their support either by appointing them to public jobs or
directly by paying them.
The PT’s supporters are saddened that their party has descended to
this level, but it is even possible that the party’s leaders decided that
buying these deputies’ votes directly would do less damage than appointing
greedy and incompetent crooks to senior positions in the public
administration. At any rate, there is as yet no evidence of corruption for
personal gain among the PT’s senior leadership.
Lula’s performance in office has been sufficiently impressive —
5.2 percent economic growth last year, 3 million new jobs, a higher minimum
wage, and new programs that give social assistance to 7.5 million poor
families — that he would be reelected tomorrow if there were an election.
Whereas President Arroyo’s performance in the Philippines has been a good
deal less impressive, and she would not be reelected.
Trying to steal the presidency, which is the crime she is widely
suspected of committing, is more serious than just trying to grease the
skids to get some legislation through Congress. Moreover, constitutional
order is a lot less stable in the Philippines, which has seen two
presidents removed by street protests in the past twenty years. But the
likeliest outcome is that Arroyo will hang on in office, widely discredited
and fighting off endless impeachment proceedings in Congress, while her
country’s economy and politics both go into a steep decline.
“Lapse of judgement” or deliberate bid to corrupt the election
process –it scarcely matters at this point. If she were a patriot, she
would resign and spare her country the ordeal that awaits it.
To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraph 4 and 10. (“In the
allegedly…says”; and “The PT’s…leadership”)
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent journalist whose articles
are published in 45 countries.