National parliaments’ role in the fight against corruption

Emilija Tudzarovska-Gjorgjievska |

By constraining the powers of executives and developing a political culture of accountability, national parliaments play a key role in the fight against corruption. However, their normative powers may be marginalized in the process of democratic consolidation. Based on original research from three European states, Emilija Tudzarovska-Gjorgjievska argues that weak parliaments contribute to the vicious cycle of corruption when they give a pretence of legitimation but do not act as democratic institutions proper.


Liberal democracy, which rests on democratic institutions as well as citizens sharing democratic values, is under stress. In Central and Eastern Europe (CEE), democracy has deteriorated, the quality of democracy is backsliding and weak law enforcement fails to deliver effective rule of law. This weak point in the systems of checks and balances is not conducive to regime change towards full functional democracy. When European states fall short of delivering democratic standards and principles, the EU’s democratic legitimacy is also threatened. Why is this the case?

The problem of weak law enforcement in corrupt systems

Weak law enforcement is not only an indicator of ineffective rule of law. It is also an important indicator of ineffective control of corruption and a major obstacle for the successful implementation of anti-corruption strategies. Moreover, corrupt systems and weak rule of law stimulate social traps whereby citizens choose either to resist the corrupt system, or to comply with the system, leading to clientelism, patronage or other informal practices.

Both types of social traps are informally institutionalized when the rule of law is biased and the exercise of power is manipulated for private interest. On both occasions, weak law enforcement rests on citizens’ mistrust in the system’s legality and equality, or in its ability to offer equal access to justice. What is more, when actors fail to offer justifications for the exercise of power as part of a legitimation process involving public scrutiny and public forums, the citizens’ trust in the ability of the political system to solve problems is further undermined. This jeopardizes democratic legitimacy both on national and supranational levels.

The role of national parliaments

My research confirms that national parliaments, which are public forums for scrutiny and key to securing democratic legitimacy, have a key role to play in breaking the patterns of social traps and the vicious cycle of corruption. My findings also indicate that the weak role of national parliaments in constraining the powers of executives has provided a breeding ground for law manipulation, and elites’ influence on the ‘rules of the game’. As a result, parliaments, which are supposed to hold governments to account, have acted as façades of legitimation, rather than as democratic institutions proper serving the citizens. The latter become detached from the systemic chain of account-giving when parliaments fail to engage them and develop a political culture of accountability. Under these conditions, taking control of corruption becomes a very difficult task – in some cases even an impossible task.

In my PhD project, I look into the cases of Slovenia, Croatia and North Macedonia, as all three states have experienced challenges in law enforcement and in providing equal access to justice. This has made it difficult to root out corruption from their political systems. Based on a qualitative comparative data analysis, drawn from interviews, legal documents and other secondary literature, I find that the marginalization of the oversight role of national parliaments in the process of democratic consolidation has created a pretence of legitimation, through a technical exercise of democratic accountability and deviations of norms. Moreover, the detachment of citizens from their elected representatives creates a political culture where parliaments are ‘accountable to no one’, adding to the vicious cycle of corruption and creating situations of social traps.

Shortcomings in the democratic consolidation

Yet, the EU’s acknowledgment of this risk to democratic legitimacy remains incremental and partial. On the one hand, the process of Europeanization as an instrument of democratization in CEE countries introduced new weight on the legal and institutional aspects of their political systems. On the other, this instrument proves to be necessary for exercising soft power pressure for countries to pursue political and economic reforms in line with the EU’s democratic values. Yet, even after becoming EU members CEE countries share similar challenges of law enforcement and difficulties in consolidating democracies.

Indeed, the post-communist political systems have been unfamiliar with the concept of democratic oversight or public scrutiny over processes and results. The process of democratic consolidation should have addressed these institutional gaps and shortcomings in democratic accountability. However, on the one hand, the EU has taken a top-down, technical approach in addressing corruption. On the other, the characteristics of the institutional matrix at national level and its ability to prevent corruptive practices have not been sufficiently acknowledged. As a result, citizens remain entrapped in a broken chain of democratic accountability between electoral cycles.

New EU strategy needed

Against these risks, the EU’s approach to address the problems of corruption remains inadequate, and it fails to take a decisive role. The European Commission’s first EU Anti-Corruption report in 2014 offered an overview of the corruptive risks in all EU member states. However, in 2017, the European Commission took a much-disputed decision to drop this instrument. The process of monitoring corruption was transferred to the European Semester, which is an economic governance tool. As such, it is not designed to address key, country-specific challenges nor to address shortcomings in law delivery. The EU also lacks a strategy for repairing the citizens’ detachment from supposedly democratic institutions.

The direct link between the quality of democracy at nation-state level and the citizens’ trust in that political order requires us to revisit the EU’s legitimacy. Corrupt political systems and ineffective rule of law present imminent risks for representative democracies. Abuse of power occurs for real and the EU and its member states rely on each other in addressing these challenges. Acknowledging a joint responsibility will be the first step towards a new approach, where safeguarding the interests of the citizens and repairing the frailty of democratic legitimacy must take centre stage.

This research is forthcoming in a volume which collects case studies from the PLATO project, edited by Dirk de Bièvre, Peter Bursens, Chris Lord and Ramses Wessel.