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Lack of political integrity is undermining trust in democracy in Middle East and North Africa

In scenes reminiscent of the Arab Spring in the early 2010s, several countries in the Middle East and North Africa have recently witnessed angry anti-government protests. Citizens have taken to the streets, frustrated by what they see as the impunity of corrupt leaders who lack political integrity.

The Global Corruption Barometer (GCB) – Middle East and North Africa (MENA) 2019 reveals that leaders in the region are perceived as acting in their own self-interest at the expense of the citizens they are meant to serve. This has serious consequences for trust in democratic institutions, with fifty-two per cent of citizens saying they are not satisfied with the level of democracy in their country.

When asked about their perceptions of corruption by institution, people identified members of parliament, government officials and heads of state as the most corrupt. Almost half of people (44 per cent) think that MPs are corrupt and thirty-nine per cent think that the president or prime minister is corrupt.

Buying power

In MENA, political integrity is particularly lacking around elections. This is seen in fraudulent, undeclared political party funding, vote-buying, the spread of fake news during campaigns and other damaging activities.

Nearly one in three citizens is offered bribes in exchange for votes in national, regional or local elections.

In Lebanon that goes up to nearly one in every two people (47 per cent), highlighting a strong link between money and power. During the 2018 parliamentary and municipal elections, the Lebanese Transparency Association, our chapter in Lebanon, identified significant issues stemming from gaps in the country’s electoral laws.

For example, incentives for vote buying have increased due to the lack of legal clarity on what defines vote buying and a recent law that raised the upper limit on electoral spending. In the lead-up to the 2018 elections, state institutions illegally employed over 4,500 people allegedly to buy their votes and those of their families.

The problem of vote buying is less common in Jordan and Palestine, but many people are still offered money or gifts to vote for certain candidates (26 per cent and 12 per cent respectively).

When people refuse the bribes

People also reported threats of retaliation if they do not vote in a certain way. This was most prevalent in Lebanon, where one in four (28 per cent) receives threats if they do not comply. As you’d expect, 89 per cent of Lebanese people think that government corruption is a big problem, higher than the already disturbing regional average of 83 per cent.

Fake news at election time

Fifty-two per cent of MENA citizens think that fake news often spreads around elections, while only eight per cent think that it never happens.

In Jordan, 59 per cent of citizens believe that fake news spreads frequently to influence election outcomes, while many in Lebanon and Palestine believe the same (58 per cent and 39 per cent respectively).

Throughout the region, repressive cybercrime laws threaten those who try to counteract fake news stories by sharing facts and opinions. In Jordan, for example, a law is making it harder for civil society organisations, media and citizens to hold corrupt leaders to account. Citizens have been jailed for speaking out online. Weak access to information laws are also limiting Jordanian’s efforts to report on and speak out against corruption.

How to achieve integrity and beat corruption

To restore public trust, politics must be free of corruption. Leaders in the Middle East and North Africa must consistently act in the long-term public interest while using open and transparent decision-making. Governments should:

  • Strengthen electoral integrity to allow for fair and democratic elections.
    Governments must ensure competitive elections are held in a fair and transparent environment. Governments should enforce sanctions against vote buying and threats to voters so that citizens can exercise their democratic right without coercion and fear.
  • Increase judicial independence and promote separation of powers.
    State institutions must ensure the separation of powers and a democratic system of checks and balances. A strong, independent judiciary and robust oversight over the executive branch are essential.
  • Improve transparency and access to information
    Governments must establish, enforce and effectively implement access to information laws. Applying open data standards, they must proactively publish information on budgets and officials’ assets, and provide guidance on how to use government services. By making information public, governments can help tackle fake news and support fact-based journalism.

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