Legal provisions that protect politicians from arrest and prosecution exist throughout much of the modern democratic world. Why, and with what effects, do societies choose to place their politicians above the law? We examine the institution of immunity both theoretically and empirically. Our theoretical model demonstrates that immunity is a double-edged sword; while statutory immunity provisions protect honest politicians from politically-motivated charges, they may also incentivize corrupt behavior. Which effect dominates depends on the quality of the judicial system. In order to empirically analyze the effects of immunity provisions, we quantify the strength of immunity protection enjoyed by heads of government, ministers, and legislators in 73 democracies. We find empirical evidence that though stronger immunity protection is associated with greater corruption where the judicial system is independent, this relationship has more ambiguous effects where the legal system is weak and susceptible to politicization. These effects remain after controlling for standard determinants of corruption.
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