When populists come to power part of their platform is almost always anti-corruption, and yet these same populists are consistently corrupt themselves. They portray themselves as outlets of the people’s will, and of course the people are opposed to corruption. But positioning oneself as the sole outlet of the people’s will also creates an image of infallibility, which is inevitably used to cover up corruption. Focusing on Europe, the populist parties which have taken power (primarily in Eastern Europe) have been ideal examples of this.
In Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban started off as a liberal opposing Hungary’s authoritarian Communist regime. He and his party, Fidesz, fought against that regime’s deep-seated corruption, and he has built off of that image ever since. Today, as a far-right populist, Orban rails against the fictional corruption of George Soros and the LGBT+ community, trying to shore up his image as Hungary’s saviour from financial, political, and moral corruption. At the same time, Orban’s government is in a standoff with the European Union (EU) over nepotism as well as misuse and embezzlement of EU funds by Orban. Hungary’s media situation is also atrocious, with media regulations being heavily biased in favour of the ruling Fidesz party and most private media being owned by the pro-Fidesz Central European Press and Media Foundation. Both Hungary and Poland have been accused by the EU of weakening judicial independence in their countries.
While Poland’s Law and Justice party is not quite as corrupt as Hungary’s Fidesz, that charge of weakening judicial independence is very much true. Last year, Poland fell to its worst ever ranking in the global corruption index from Transparency International. This year, it worked the rolling back of anti-corruption legislation into a bill also assisting Ukrainian refugees. Because “you wouldn’t want to vote against helping Ukrainian refugees, would you?” All of this is in stark contrast to the party’s fight against the fictional corruption of what it calls “LGBT ideology.” Even the party’s name, “Law and Justice” conjures up the image of an anti-corruption party, and yet an anti-corruption party it is not.
Czechia is a country which recently removed its corrupt anti-corruption party, the ANO (Action of Dissatisfied Citizens), from office. However, before that happened the ANO was just like Fidesz and Law and Justice. ANO’s leader, Andrej Babis, is the second-richest person in Czechia and “has won elections based on a pretense that [he] is not a part of the establishment and that he would deal with [a] corrupted political elite.” Despite this image of Babis as an anti-corruption crusader and his party’s name reflecting anti-corruption attitudes, after losing his election he is now on trial for committing fraud worth $2 million.
Corruption as discussed above is not just limited to EU countries either, as Russian President Vladimir Putin is one of the worst offenders in power right now. Since he came to power almost 23 years ago, Putin has publicly waged a battle against Russia’s oligarchs – powerful Russian businessmen who hold monopolies over various Russian industries. He rose to popularity in part because of his aim to clean up Russia after the difficulties of the Yeltsin administration, and this still bolsters his popularity. Before his invasion of Ukraine, Putin was in hot water due to his lavish, multi-billion dollar mansion being revealed by Putin critic Alexei Navalny. Navalny was later poisoned -narrowly surviving- and then jailed by the Russian government as retaliation. After the invasion of Ukraine began, American sanctions on Russia are beginning to reveal the true extent of Putin’s wealth and his friendly connections with oligarchs who were ostensibly supposed to be his enemies.
Overall, Eastern Europe (both inside and outside the EU) provides some great examples of how populists portray themselves to be anti-corruption and then turn out to be corrupt themselves. Additionally, when the corruption they initially railed against is defeated or if they are personally suspected of corruption, they tend to use scapegoats as a distraction. Anti-corruption populists do often replace genuinely corrupt, non-populist governments. That corruption should not be ignored, but nor should anybody forget that the populist replacements are just as corrupt as those they replace, if not more so. In the end, the anti-corruption populists are the new boss, same as the old boss.