Political Crime Explained

Political crime refers to actions which prejudice the interests of the state, its political system, or its government; or which threaten the continued survival of the state. Such actions include but are not limited to sedition and treason, but these terms can cover a great deal of ground. Political crime is distinguished from state crime, where the machinery of government breaks its own laws or international law in actions against its own citizenry.

Through popular usage, political crime has also come to refer to criminal acts committed by a politician relating to his existing office or to one that is sought. Such crimes are properly defined as political corruption. These crimes are based on breach of public trust for personal gain, and usually involve extortion, graft, patronage, and various forms of fraud.

Sedition and treason

The purpose of all political crime which has been defined as seditious or treasonable is to achieve change to the established political order by taking actions outside the established government mechanism for achieving change. Depending on the style and structure of government as well as on the current social context, such actions could include everything from exercise of free speech through demonstrations in the streets to outright military attacks. Although individual actions may be quickly suppressed, harshness here is usually intended as a deterrent. In contrast, state response to organized actions which have been defined as seditious is often much more extreme, in proportion to their threat to the state. The same action could be considered legal at one time and seditious at another. If an action has political implications and is not explicitly protected by the country’s constitution, it has the potential to be branded a political crime.

Because all governments are invested in perpetuating their own style of government, all states have some limitations on non-conformist actions which could undermine existing structures. The distinction between what is normal political activity and what is a political crime is usually based upon what is perceived as threatening to the survival of the state. However, some governments start to see themselves as inseparable from the country. In extreme cases, what they brand as political crime will be based upon what is dangerous to the existing government also being dangerous to the country.

A famous example of an action which threads the needle between free speech and political crime is the issue of flag desecration. In most European and Asian countries, any desecration of the national flag is a penal offense. In the United States, the right to burn a flag is currently protected under the constitutional right to free speech. However, a large percentage of the voting public have always thought this action ought to be considered treasonous, so it is likely that this protection may be revoked in the future, either through judicial reinterpretation of the First Amendment or through constitutional amendment. On June 27, 2006, an attempted constitutional amendment failed in the Senate by a single vote.

Even where an action is not a political crime, a party’s propaganda machine may present it as such. For example, when Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper faced the threat of being legally ousted from government and replaced by an opposition coalition in December 2008, he and the Conservative party machine immediately labeled the action as a “coup d’etat.” It was of course no such thing, so the law enforcement agencies were not summoned to deal with it. All the same, the Canadian public was swayed against the coalition, and the Harper government survived.

Political corruption

The purpose of all political crime committed by a politician relating to his office is to strengthen his position within that office, to make it more likely that he will keep that office, or to improve his position after he leaves office. These actions could involve but are not limited to extortion, graft, patronage, and various forms of fraud. For example, a politician may cultivate favors with influential friends by using the political office to ‘sell’ off political appointments. Perhaps the most common type of political corruption is some variant of siphoning off government resources for personal or partisan purposes, or of accepting money and other perks in exchange for influence peddling. More extreme examples of political corruption may include perjury, racketeering, and even complicity in violent crimes.

To gain or retain office in a democratic government, some politicians engage in electoral fraud. This may include a wide range of actions from ballot stuffing to intimidation. Edgar Allen Poe may have died as a result of cooping, a 19th century American practice in which unwilling voters were kidnapped and forced to vote for a particular candidate, sometimes repeatedly. Blatant attempts to skew electoral results, such as selectively turning away voters at a poll, are readily apparent to outsider scrutiny and may be the subject of subsequent challenges to the legitimacy of an election. However, redrawing electoral districts to the governing party’s benefit is rarely seriously challenged by more than a filibuster.

Because political influence can ensure lucrative contracts or gloss over mandatory inspections, political corruption often walks hand in hand with corporate crime. Corruption in the awarding of a contract increases costs to government and consequently taxpayers by undermining the free market and thus artificially inflating the contract value. Breach of industry regulations can result in a heightened risk to people living near corporate facilities or transportation. Despite their frequency, influence-peddling crimes are not commonly prosecuted. Perks have become a standard part of lobbying, making the difference between normal lobbying and graft razor-thin. Prosecution of these types of crimes has been most successful where a related perjury or bribe can be proved.

To limit such influence peddling, many democratic governments have instituted limits on donations or gifts a politician may receive, and require every politician to report all such donations and gifts. Obviously the effectiveness of this measure depends on the transparency and accuracy of the report, coupled with the effectiveness of oversight committees and watchdogs. Another weakness is ‘soft money’ donations which a party may redistribute as it sees fit.

As can be seen, it is generally difficult to protect against political corruption. It is recognized that every successful politician has to cultivate a network to achieve any part of his campaign platform. How well a particular government succeeds in the ongoing struggle against political corruption depends on where it draws the line between legal and illegal actions in cultivating that network, and how heavily it chooses to enforce that line.