Political parties are essential components of democratic governance. Democracies require political parties as these offer the voter political choices at election time. They also represent and channel divergent social interests and diffuse them in what is typically a protracted political process. While the specific roles of political parties vary from one country to another, arguably no democratic system of government can do without them.
A recent survey published by Transparency International (TI), the leading global non-governmental organization devoted to combating corruption, revealed disturbing news. In 36 out of the 62 countries surveyed, a majority of respondents thought political parties their most corrupt institution. Following political parties, parliaments, the police and the judiciary were perceived as the next most tainted. Ten of 64 countries included in the survey are Asian. In accordance with the overall global tendency, a majority of respondents in India, Indonesia and Japan consider the political parties in their respective countries to be the most corrupt institution. The Taiwanese and South Koreans, however, give the negative distinction of "most corrupt" to their parliaments, while Filipinos, Malaysians and Pakistanis consider the police to be the worst offenders against honesty and transparency. Interestingly, the perceptions regarding corruption are rather different in Singapore and Hong Kong. Respondents in those places are less worried about the corruption of the political classes, but identify the private business sector as most affected by corrupt practices.
Among the many important messages of the recent TI-report, two stand out: First, the public perception of political corruption is by no means limited to the so-called Third World with its young democracies but very much a global phenomenon. Second, political corruption continues to have a devastating impact on the public's confidence in political institutions, foremost political parties and parliaments, in all parts of the world.
The magnitude of political corruption and the mechanics of how societies choose to deal with it vary from one country to another. Here, political culture, traditions and sociological factors play an important role. While according to the survey political corruption is a serious problem in many democratic societies, the situation is worse in dictatorships where political checks and balances are not in place, and media and civil society are severely restricted. At the same time, transitions from authoritarianism to democracy do not automatically lead to an end of political corruption. Some argue the opposite may be the case. There exists a strong correlation between electoral campaign expenditure and political corruption. To win elections, politicians and parties wage costly campaigns. Often, campaign contributions are linked to political favors. The challenge is not to eliminate all money from politics. Parties need money to function according to the constitutional provisions. Ways and means must be found to ensure the clean and transparent management of all political funds.
"One common observation is that corruption in parties is more prevalent when parties lack strong ideological commitments", wrote Peter M. Manikas and Laura Thornton in a recent book entitled Political Parties in Asia. They argue that when parties offer their constituents little in terms of concrete policies and programs "money can substitute as a driving factor for winning votes." Thus, the promotion of platform-based party politics becomes one strategy in fighting political corruption.