Why corruption and coercion flourish in flawed elections

Electoral malpractice – from subtle disinformation campaigns through to bribery, corruption and overt physical intimidation – undermine democratic contests across the world. A new report by Pippa Norris, Thomas Wynter and Sarah Cameron from the Electoral Integrity Project, which adds 44 election evaluations from 2017 to its rolling survey of elections, finds that electoral corruption and coercion are related to one another, and more prevalent in societies that are poorer, less democratic, and heavily dependent on natural resources. 

Books of ballot papers, Papua New Guinea, 2017. Picture: The Commonwealth, via (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Recent contests in Kenya, Honduras and Papua New Guinea were derailed by election-related violence and corruption. Financial malfeasance has also triggered scandals in Greece, Italy, France, Spain and Bulgaria. Transparency International, reports that graft, kickbacks and cronyism plague India, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines and Russia. Not all of these problems are related to elections – but many are. In Brazil, for example, the former President (Lula) Luiz Inácio da Silva was charged with receiving kickbacks from the state oil company Petrobras. The charges were upheld by a panel of judges in January 2018 thereby barring the leading candidate in the polls from running for the presidency. In Costa Rica, a scandal (Cementazo) damaged many prominent figures. Pledges to fight this problem featured heavily in recent contests from Mexico and Italy to Austria.  

Given these sorts of headlines, when asked to identify the most corrupt institution in their country, it is not surprising that the public sees elected representatives as one of the most problematic agencies, according to TI’s Global Corruption Barometer. During the post-Cold War era, concern has risen about the proliferation of election-related protests and violence. Contentious elections challenge the legitimacy of electoral actors, procedures or outcomes. These types of contest can undermine democratic transitions in countries emerging from dictatorship, cause further instability and social tensions in fragile states, discourage international investment, and jeopardise stability, growth and development in low-income economies. 

But how extensive are these problems? The Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) expert survey has gathered new cross-national evidence about the extent of election-related corruption and coercion. Electoral corruption and coercion are often related, as shown in the figure below. Not surprisingly, experts estimate that Western democracies such as Iceland, Portugal and Australia are generally free of these problems. By contrast, problems of electoral corruption and coercion are far more common in authoritarian states such as Chad, Djibouti, Syria and Equatorial Guinea. Autocratic states, such as Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Central African Republic, appear predominantly above the trend line – indicating more election-related threats and intimidation. Hybrid regimes, which are neither clearly autocracies or democracies, often have more corruption.   

Corruption, Coercion and Liberal Democracy 

Note: Colours reflect V-Dem’s measure of Liberal Democracy. The PEI Corruption and Coercion Indices are coded from 0 to 100.  SourcesPEI 6.0 and the Quality of Government Data. 

What causes these problems? 

The type of political regime and path-dependent historical legacies are likely to prove important – but how? For long-established democracies, experience of a succession of competitive elections and processes of democratic consolidation will lessen the problems of coercion and vote-buying. Hybrid states – which have transitioned from democracy but have not yet developed robust institutions such as stable systems of party competition – are likely to be vulnerable to contentious elections and the use of electoral corruption. By contrast, autocratic regimes, which fail to respect human rights in general, are more likely to engage in coercive practices and outright repression to maintain electoral support for ruling parties.  

In general, democracies also usually flourish in affluent societies while they remain more vulnerable and unstable in poorer states. Poorer voters are the primary targets of vote-buying initiatives, where modest material inducements like small gifts of food or clothing may make a difference to voting behaviour. Both vote-buying and coercion are therefore expected to be more widespread in low-income developing societies. 

At the level of institutions, the type of electoral system may also be important. In general, elections with single-member plurality rules heighten the incentives for malpractices such as vote-buying and coercion, since the shift of even a few votes can make all the difference for a candidate’s victory.    

Among structural conditions, the well-known ‘oil curse’ is also expected to count as an intervening condition. Several relatively wealthy economies dependent upon natural resources, such as Kuwait and Equatorial Guinea, are characterised by endemic corruption. Vote-buying practices are also likely to be above average when elections are held in oil-rich states and economies based on natural resources.  

To test evidence for these claims, we look at correlations between social and political indicators and the PEI estimates of the prevalence of coercion and corruption. Both corruption and coercion worsen in poorer societies with lower levels of democracy and more natural resources. This suggests that deep-rooted structural conditions are at the heart of these problems – making it difficult to hold free and fair contests in many states around the globe.  

In addition to these persistent barriers to electoral integrity, new challenges from authoritarian-populist parties, cybersecurity risks of foreign hacking and social media misinformation campaigns have emerged. These will require particular scrutiny for key elections in 2018, which include Russia’s upcoming election, Egypt in March, Zimbabwe in July, Brazil in October, and the US mid-terms in November.   

This article represents the views of the authors and not those of Democratic Audit. For more information, see the latest Electoral Integrity Project report: Corruption and Coercion: The Year in Elections 2017; and download the latest data which covers 285 elections in 164 countries, from 2012 to 2017Perceptions of Electoral Integrity (PEI) 6.0. 

 About the authors  

Pippa Norris is the McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at Harvard University, Laureate Fellow and Professor of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney, and Founding Director of the Electoral Integrity Project.   


Sarah Cameron is the Electoral Integrity Project Manager and Research Fellow at the University of Sydney.


Thomas Wynter is the Perceptions of Electoral Integrity Program Manager and Research Fellow at the University of Sydney.   


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