30 Percent of Indian Lawmakers Have Criminal Cases Against Them

On Wednesday, the Indian Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling banning politicians who have been convicted of serious crimes from sitting in parliament, supplementing an earlier law banning convicts from running for office. But what really caught our eye was a statistic in the Financial Times' write-up of the news. An astounding 162 out of 543 members of the Lok Sabha, India's lower house of parliament, have criminal cases against the, according to data collected after India's last general election in 2009 by National Election Watch and the Association for Democracy Reforms. For those keeping score, that's 30 percent of lawmakers.

In its coverage of the Supreme Court decision, the Press Trust of India, citing the findings of the same two organizations, adds that 1,258 out of 4,032 sitting lawmakers in state legislatures are facing criminal cases -- also roughly 30 percent.

These cases, the Financial Times notes, "include serious charges such as rape, murder and kidnapping, though the paper adds that some politicians are now complaining that they will "face frivolous or malicious cases designed to keep them out of parliament."

India, of course, doesn't have a monopoly on ministerial misbehavior. Italy, which passed a law in late 2012 banning certain classes of criminals from serving in government, also has a less-than-stellar record. You might be familiar with Italy's philandering former prime minister, but he's not the only Italian politico to find himself on the wrong side of the law. While many of these incidents involve corruption, there's also the case of Mario Borghezio, a member of the European Parliament from the anti-immigrant Northern League Party who was fined 750,000 lira in 1993 for beating a Moroccan child and convicted of arson in 2005 for burning the possessions of immigrants.

Other far-right parties in Europe, like Greece's neo-Nazi Golden Dawn, harbor some alleged criminals -- like Ilias Kasidiaris, who not only attacked a fellow MP on live television, but has faced charges of being an "accessory to robbery, bodily harm, and gun possession." But perhaps the most colorful criminal parliamentarian was former British Labour MP John Stonehouse -- who, in an effort to dodge charges of fraud, theft, and forgery, faked his own death in 1974 by leaving his clothes on a beach in Miami, before fleeing to Australia to begin a new life under the assumed identity of a dead constituent. Stonehouse was eventually found out and brought back to Britain, where he continued to serve as a lawmaker from behind bars.

But India's problem is particularly pervasive -- and not exactly new, either. In 1997 the Economist noted that one in 10 candidates in the previous year's general election were facing criminal charges, and in 2009 Reuters reported that one in five national candidates found themselves in similar circumstances.

So what gives? Back in June, Berkeley researchers Rahul Verma and Pradeep Chhibber crunched the numbers and found that once in office, Indian politicians facing criminal charges behave no differently than lawmakers with no criminal charges against them.

"The criminalisation of politics is not the cause of the dysfunctional democracy in India, but a symptom of greater malaise in our democracy," Verma and Chhibber concluded. "In the National Election Study (NES 2009), voters were asked whether they would prefer a candidate with a criminal record who gets work done or a clean politician who cannot get their work done. The rural poor said that they would not mind voting for a candidate with a criminal record if the candidate can get their work done. They also preferred an approachable politician to an honest politician. The poor's preference for a politician who can get things done 'no matter what' is, in our opinion, because of the daily actions of a state that either treats the poor shabbily all year round, intimidates them, or is simply absent. That needs to be addressed."



The Egyptian Prime Minister's New Problems Look a Lot Like His Old Problems

Two and a half years after the fall of Hosni Mubarak, Hazem el-Beblawi must be experiencing a wave of déjà vu. Egypt watchers may recall that during the second half of 2011, Beblawi served as the minister of finance for the military's transitional government. Now, he has been elevated to the position of prime minister in the wake of President Mohamed Morsy's ouster. And the challenges he faces are remarkably similar to those he confronted two years ago.

Then, he faced an anemic Egyptian economy weighed down by slumping tourism revenues, shortages of basic goods, and a lack of foreign-exchange reserves. As if that wasn't enough, his term was marred by violence carried out by the army. Now, well, he faces an anemic Egyptian economy weighed down by slumping tourism revenues, shortages of basic goods, and a lack of foreign-exchange reserves. And as if that wasn't enough, the army just massacred at least 50 Muslim Brotherhood supporters.

In short, Beblawi's recent career is a case study in how maddeningly difficult it is to carry out reforms in Egypt today.

When he assumed the position of finance minister in July 2011, Beblawi had a clear agenda: Figure out a way to phase out energy subsidies, restore some dynamism to the economy, and secure the funding to cover Egypt's budget deficits.

"Subsidies make up 33 percent of Egypt's spending, two-thirds of which go to oil," Beblawi said in October 2011. "The cancer in the budget is subsidies," he added.

"If we don't get loans from international institutions how will we deal with the budget deficit?" he wondered aloud that same month.

Addressing the threat posed by instability to the economy, he argued just before taking office that "what is needed is to restore the trust and the credibility of the government. The basic problem facing us now in the short run is restoring security, not just security but the perception of security."

But two years later, the problems Beblawi vowed to fix remain -- if anything, they're worse. Unemployment is stubbornly high, shortages persist, and an IMF loan package must still be negotiated. A "perception of security" is nowhere to be found.

A technocrat with a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Paris, Beblawi was the perfect man to carry out a reform agenda. Having emerged as a critic of the Mubarak regime, he had credibility with the protesters -- even if his free-market ideology would never make him a crowd favorite. Having served in a series of heavyweight economic positions -- including a stint as undersecretary general at the United Nations -- he had the economic chops to find solutions. But instead of implementing an agenda to restore a semblance of growth to the Egyptian economy, his term was torpedoed by instability stirred up in part by the army.

When, in October 2011, the army killed 25 Coptic Christian protesters, Beblawi resigned in protest. "Despite the fact that there might not be direct responsibility on the government's part, the responsibility lies, ultimately, on its shoulders," Beblawi said in explaining his decision. "The current circumstances are very difficult and require a new and different way of thinking and working."

Ultimately, Egypt's military rulers refused to accept his resignation.

Now, with the Egyptian pound devalued, food prices high, and gas maddeningly hard to come by, Beblawi has a second chance to tackle Egypt's bread-and-butter issues. That is, if the chaos gripping Egypt subsides long enough for him to try.