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What Is Political Corruption?

By Ray Hawk
Updated May 23, 2024
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Political corruption is a general term that refers to instances where appointed or elected government officials, from judges to legislators and police, fail to uphold the law in a fair and balanced manner. This can include such activities as supporting legislation through bribery, providing favorable or unfavorable judicial and legal treatment to select minorities in the population, or other abuses of power. Human history in governments of all types have demonstrated corruption to some degree. The practice is usually more widespread, however, in political systems that lack the innate checks and balances to limit power at local and national levels, such as in dictatorships and totalitarian regimes.

The most unstable countries are generally those with poor government administration and control over the population, due to economic, military, or ethnic turmoil. This often leads to widespread political corruption in government officials who obtained their authority and offices by questionable means in the first place and who may not be representative of the will of the people. Nations that topped the list of a failed states index as of 2011 included Somalia, Zimbabwe, and Sudan. Each nation has unique circumstances that lead to political corruption, with Somalia having a very weak central government, Zimbabwe facing enormous economic challenges, and Sudan struggling with ethnic strife.

National intelligence services such as the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) regularly examine corruption by country and attempt to fairly rank nations using universal human rights principles. These include political freedoms and protections that governments offer to their citizens. The lists are based on basic political rights and civil liberties that, once well-established, minimize political corruption such as police corruption and unfair rule by a power elite.

The CIA ranking for nations by level of freedom as of 2011 is based on the political rights of a fair electoral process, political pluralism and participation by the population, and a stable, functioning government. It also includes rankings using civil liberties, such as freedom of expression and belief, rule of law, and protection for individual rights. Nations that ranked as most oppressive on the list as of 2011 included Burma, Libya, and North Korea. Others considered high on the list for unfair political systems that often lead to systemic corruption included China, Cuba, and Laos.

Corruption in local government is often an example of where a national government is weak or has abdicated responsibility over its citizens except in the capital and major cities. This sort of political corruption can be traced back to empires and monarchies of the distant past, where a ruling political class used its power and wealth to exploit a disadvantaged local population. Similar circumstances still exist today in many developing nations, where the wealth of a nation's natural resources are channeled largely to the ruling class, and the bulk of the population is neglected and ignored. The CIA World Factbook as of 2007 listed The Democratic Republic of the Congo as an example of a nation where rampant corruption in the banking system and poor infrastructure contribute to making it the sixth most dangerous country in the world in which to live.

Political scandal, however, is not solely the province of poor nations or those ruled by oppressive regimes. Many advanced democracies at one time or another have had a political machine that was rampant with corruption. Great statesmen like the UK's Winston Churchill recognized that political corruption is a human condition that arises in all forms of government and that one of the best ways to minimize it was to encourage the participation of all citizens in the process of government. Political corruption in its most basic form is an act by a public official that defies broad public interests, to give special consideration to the needs of associates and like-minded individuals. In this sense, political corruption is a trend that all public officials must be on-guard against in performing their day-to-day duties for the population they are tasked with serving.

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Discussion Comments

By Melonlity — On Jan 31, 2014

It is still incredible to me that we don't count as corruption the fact that lobbyists are virtually buying the U.S. government on all levels (state, federal, local and perhaps even the PTA in some instances). When special interests are of primary importance, what is good for the rest of us poor slobs who happen to live here goes out the window.

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