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The week in corruption, 26 November 2021

Citizens of El Salvador protesting against President Nayib Bukele's policies in September 2021

Citizens of El Salvador protesting against President Nayib Bukele's policies in September 2021. Image: Guayo Fuentes / Shutterstock

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Transparency Int'l

This week, we’re following the rapid democratic backsliding in El Salvador with great alarm.

Even though the proposed ‘foreign agents’ bill has not moved forward as quickly as we had originally feared, authorities have cracked down harder on civil society, raiding the offices of seven non-profits this week.

Journalists and activists – including our own colleagues – have also learned that they may have been targets of state surveillance.

Much of this has been happening at the whim of President Nayib Bukele who, in recent months, went from branding himself as the “coolest dictator in the world” to the “CEO of El Salvador”.

Bukele came to power after winning the 2019 presidential election on an anti-corruption platform. But his government quickly abandoned plans for a more accountable government, launching blatant attacks on justice institutions and lessening anti-corruption checks.

Despite scoring well on electoral integrity issues, El Salvador is assessed to be at a “high risk of backsliding” in the Global State of Democracy Report 2021 released this week. This is largely due to its poorer performance on other measures, such as protection of civil liberties and checks on government.

It is therefore not at all surprising that President Bukele is not on US President Joe Biden’s guest-list for the Summit for Democracy, taking place on 9-10 December.

Protesters in the street, sign reads: "The only way to practice democracy is practice democracy."

Image: andipantz / iStock

More than a hundred government leaders are expected to show up, according to the list released just days ago. The controversy related to the inclusion of some troubled democracies aside, we’re keeping our expectations for the Summit in check.

The Summit’s stated aim is to “set forth an affirmative agenda for democratic renewal” through collective action against three threats: authoritarianism, corruption and human rights abuses.

There is indeed an urgent need to address corruption as a driver of democratic decline. But it remains to be seen whether the Summit will allow for an honest reflection on the problems driving the global democratic decline.

First and foremost, established democracies will need to take responsibility for failing to curb transnational corruption linked to their jurisdictions – the same corruption that also enables authoritarian regimes to sustain power and exert illicit foreign influence on democracies.

The good news is that the upcoming Summit is only the beginning. The hosts plan to use the gathering to kick off “a year of action” leading up to a second Summit in 2022. To that end, governments would do well to take cues from our new position paper, which details Transparency International’s proposed set of commitments.

One key area around which democracies need to urgently step up their game is the defence of anti-corruption fighters around the world. With more countries now moving in an authoritarian direction, support for independent journalists and activists is going to be crucial.

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