There are many ways for democracy to fail

  • By
  • Anne Applebaum

“I hope that one day we’d be able to return to a country we recognize.” For the first time since she was murdered by a car bomb six months ago, members of Daphne Caruana Galizia’s family have spoken publicly about the circumstances that led to her death. Caruana Galizia was a Maltese journalist who wrote about corruption and money laundering in a country that had turned a blind eye to it. As one of her sons says in a video recorded by an international consortium set up to continue her investigations, she was “fighting to hold Malta and Maltese society to a higher standard.”

She was also reporting on a country that has undergone tumultuous change. Once a rocky, sleepy Mediterranean backwater — Malta was a British colony until 1964 — the island has transformed itself over the past decade into a tax haven, a hub for online gambling and, as Caruana Galizia alleged, a hub for international money laundering. In the past few years, the island has profited immensely from the sale of Maltese passports. Criminals as well as legitimate businessmen from around the world essentially park their planes at the Valletta airport and then exchange suitcases full of cash for the right to live, and to keep their money, inside the European Union. Many Maltese benefited from the rising property prices, but Caruana Galizia suspected that some of that money went directly to Maltese politicians and bureaucrats.

In light of the major speech French President Emmanuel Macron made to the European Parliament this last week calling on fellow Europeans to “take the firm choice to defend democracy,” it is worth looking at why Malta changed so dramatically. Most analyses of Macron’s speech assumed he was talking about Hungary and to a lesser extent Poland, countries whose current ruling parties have politicized the judiciary, turned public media into party propaganda organs, and made life difficult or impossible for independent media. But in an era when international flows of money dwarf the state budgets of many countries, Macron’s warning about the weakness of Western democracy should be read much more widely.

In Malta, the independent institutions that should, in theory, enforce a neutral or impartial version of the law are, in practice, far too weak to do so. Paul Caruana Galizia, one of Daphne’s sons, argues that in Malta, the prime minister in practice controls the police force, judicial appointments and the attorney general. As a result, few of his mother’s stories, even those connecting the prime minister and his entourage to secret offshore accounts, ever led to official investigations, let alone prosecutions: “No attorney general has ever brought a case against the government,” he told me.

This weakness has infected his mother’s murder case: Although three men have been arrested for planting the car bomb, authorities have not found out who was behind it, nor seriously questioned many of the people who might have had a motive to do it.

But is this failure to enforce the rule of law really so unusual? Just this last week, it was reported why tax authorities in Britain, a country which is meant to have more robust institutions than Malta, refused to investigate Lycamobile, a British telecoms company, even after French prosecutors arrested 19 people accused of using its accounts to launder money. Although the allegations against Lycamobile include details just as sordid as those in a typical Caruana Galizia story — couriers dropping bags of cash at post offices across London, vast fake billing schemes and fake companies — BuzzFeed News has now published excerpts from a government letter explaining why British tax authorities hesitated. Officials argued both that the company is just too big — it is “a large multinational company” with “vast assets at their disposal” — and too powerful: Lycamobile is “the biggest corporate donor to the Conservative party led by Prime Minister Theresa May and donated 1.25 [million] Euros to the Prince Charles Trust in 2012.”

If tax authorities, fraud police, judges and prosecutors are too understaffed and too cowed to enforce the law in Britain — a country that prides itself on its ancient democratic traditions, including rule of law — then how well are they doing elsewhere? This isn’t just a European problem. Even apart from his role linking the Trump campaign to Russia, it is striking how many glaring irregularities special counsel Robert S. Mueller III found in the business affairs of Paul Manafort. Had he not reentered American politics and become the focus of heavy scrutiny, Manafort probably would have gotten away with his alleged fraud. Most money launderers do.

His story, like the story of Caruana Galizia, shows that there is more than one way for democracy to fail. The independent institutions that enforce the law, control criminality and prevent corrosive corruption can be weakened, openly and dramatically, from above, as they are in Hungary. But they can also be weakened from below. If independent legal institutions are deprived of resources and understaffed, if journalists who report on crimes are ignored, if the public is indifferent — these, too, are sure paths toward democratic failure. And such things can happen slowly, quietly, almost imperceptibly — at least until a crisis, or a bomb explosion, reveals that its citizens are living in a country they no longer recognize.