Data suggest emerging market citizens rate politicians’ standards highly
Authoritarian leaders are seen as far more trustworthy than politicians in more openly democratic countries across the emerging world, according to data compiled by the World Economic Forum.
Leaders in Singapore, the Gulf states and Rwanda are rated as having the highest ethical standards in the emerging markets, closely followed by their Chinese and central Asian counterparts.
In contrast, politicians in democracies such as Brazil, Paraguay, Nigeria, Mexico and Romania are seen as exhibiting the lowest ethical standards.
“It does look counterintuitive,” says Thierry Geiger, head of analytics and quantitative research at the WEF, which has polled local and expatriate business communities in 138 countries on the issue since 2007 as part of its annual Global Competitiveness Report.
One of the biggest losers in the WEF’s “trust in politicians” ranking over this period has been Tunisia, widely regarded as the sole success story of the 2011 Arab uprisings. Its politicians were ranked as the 15th most trustworthy in the world in 2010, before the overthrow of President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali. Under democratic rule, the country has fallen to 63rd.
Other countries that saw sharp falls in the ranking include the democracies of South Africa, Barbados, South Korea, Iceland, Cyprus and Spain.
Overall, among the 20 emerging market countries rated as having the most trustworthy politicians in the 2016 survey, 13 are rated as “not free” by Freedom House, a US government-funded non-governmental organisation, with three classed as partly free and just four classed as free.
Among the 20 emerging markets whose politicians are seen as having the lowest ethical standards, not one is classed by Freedom House as not free, with six free and 14 partly free.
Similarly, the 20 “cleanest” countries in the WEF ranking have an average “Polity IV” score of -1.6 on a scale from -10 to +10, where higher scores represent greater democracy, in rankings by the Center for Systemic Peace and the Political Instability Task Force, two US NGOs. The 20 “dirtiest” countries have an average Polity IV score of +7.5.
The WEF did “not expect a high correlation between measures of democracy or freedom and ethical standards”. Mr Geiger says people were more focused on whether “the politicians take care of me or do the right thing for me, governing in the interests of the people”.
Wealthier emerging market countries such as Singapore and the United Arab Emirates – the top two in its global political trustworthiness ranking, ahead of Norway and New Zealand – were also likely to have less corrupt politicians than their poorer peers, he suggested: “Singapore is not a democracy but . . . the officials are among the best paid in the world. Why would you accept bribes if you are highly paid?”
Charles Robertson, chief economist at Renaissance Capital, an emerging market-focused investment bank, said: “Generally you would think that the richer countries have somewhat, if not much, more respect for politicians.”
He added that in poor democracies there might be an incentive to “grab the cash while you are in power for a short period of time. In autocracies you are in power forever and maybe there is enough money to go around”.
However, even taking into account countries’ per capita income, there are plenty of surprises in the WEF rankings.
Rwanda, with gross domestic product per head of $732 last year, according to the International Monetary Fund, is seen as having the seventh “cleanest” politicians in the world, while Bhutan, with GDP per head of $2,843, is 25th, ahead of Japan, France and the US.
Mr Robertson noted that Paul Kagame, president of Rwanda, had clamped down on bribery by public officials, while Bhutan “has a measure of national happiness and the king is well regarded”.
Wealthier Malaysia is relatively highly ranked at 27th in the world despite the disappearance of almost $4bn from its 1MDB sovereign wealth fund.
Wealth disparities also fail to explain the findings for Latin America, which accounts for 10 of the 12 lowest-rated countries in the world and has an average continent-wide political trustworthiness score of 2.08 out of a possible 7, comfortably behind the 2.89 average of far poorer sub-Saharan Africa.
“The issue in Latam at the moment is the perception, and in some cases the existence, of
corruption. It’s not surprising that there has been a loss of faith in politicians and democracy,” said Neil Shearing, chief emerging market economist at Capital Economics, the consultancy.
Brazil, in particular, has been rocked by the Petrobras scandal and the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff, but even before this its highest ranking since the start of the survey was a not much more impressive 97th in 2011.
However, Mr Shearing warned of the possibility of bias creeping into therankings, particularly when it comes to the high standing of authoritarian states.
“If you don’t have a culture that is particularly free or there isn’t a culture of challenging, it might not be a surprise that people have trouble questioning governments and authorities,” he said.
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