Berlin (AFP) - The rise of populist politicians around the world risks undermining the fight against corruption, an anti-graft watchdog said Wednesday, warning that it feared a backslide in the US under new President Donald Trump.
"Populism is the wrong medicine," Transparency International said as it released its closely-watched annual Corruption Perceptions Index, which ranks nations according to their perceived level of public sector corruption.
"In countries with populist or autocratic leaders, we often see democracies in decline and a disturbing pattern of attempts to crack down on civil society, limit press freedom, and weaken the independence of the judiciary," said TI chair Jose Ugaz.
"Instead of tackling crony capitalism, those leaders usually install even worse forms of corrupt systems," he said in a statement.
The watchdog said that both Hungary and Turkey, "countries that have seen the rise of autocratic leaders", have slipped in the corruption rankings in recent years.
Concerns are also mounting about the United States, where Trump assumed power last week following a campaign that railed against the political "elite" and promised to clean up corruption in Washington.
But Finn Heinrich, a research director at TI, said he was "not hopeful" the US billionaire would live up to those pledges given his myriad business conflicts, his attacks on the media and his refusal to release his tax returns.
"When you see that Donald Trump has put his son-in-law as a senior advisor that smells off," he told AFP.
"His whole cabinet is full of conflicts of interest. He said he would drain the swamp. The first signs show that he would rather water it."
The United States fell two places to reach the 18th spot in TI's latest index with a score of 74 out of 100, down from 76 in 2015.
"If (Trump) keeps his promises to fight corruption, I think the US can improve. But if you look at his actions so far, what we worry about is that there will be a decline," Heinrich said.
- Best and worst -
The Berlin-based group said in its statement that "deep-rooted" reforms were needed worldwide to tackle the inequality and systemic corruption that have proved such "fertile ground" for populists.
For its 2016 index, the watchdog ranked 176 countries on a scale of 0-100, where zero means very corrupt and 100 signifies very clean.
The data is based on surveys from the World Bank, the African Development Bank, the Economist Intelligence unit and other bodies.
New Zealand and Denmark shared the number one spot with a score of 90 points, with Finland, Sweden, Switzerland and Norway rounding out the top five of squeaky clean nations.
Strife-torn Somalia was the worst offender in the list for a 10th year running, followed by South Sudan, North Korea and Syria.
Qatar suffered the biggest fall, with a score 10 points lower than last year's, which TI put down to the corruption claims dogging the country's 2022 FIFA World Cup bid.