“The Whole World Can Commit Corrupt Acts” : Petrobras and the Brazilian Election

“There are corrupt people everywhere,” said Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. “In my opinion, the whole world can commit corrupt acts.” Brazil’s presidential election is neck and neck, the closest in a generation. As both candidates accuse each other of corruption, two questions come to mind: First, is corruption influencing the outcome of this race? Second, should it?

I’ve written before about the scandal embroiling Petrobras, Brazil’s state-run oil company. It is clear now that Brazil’s prosecutors will investigate a company “as big as Brazil,” and investigations have yielded significant evidence of corruption. Last week, Paulo Roberto Costa, the former director of refining and supply at Petrobras, and Alberto Youssef, a self-confessed money launderer, described how political patrons from President Rousseff’s Workers Party (PT) received 3% of the value of contracts for big projects like refineries and oil rigs. However, there is no suggestion that Petrobras directors nominated by the PT, or President Rousseff herself, were enriched by the kickbacks.

Earlier this year, President Rousseff dismissed allegations of corruption as political gamesmanship. As the election draws near – and evidence of corruption continues to emerge – has such gamesmanship been effective? Unfortunately, the answer depends on whom you ask. The first opinion poll commissioned after Costa and Youssef’s statements emerged had President Rousseff’s challenger, Aécio Neves, ahead by seventeen points. But recent polls show a more even race, with the candidates within a percentage point of one another.

Another question is whether allegations of corruption should impact this presidential election. With what little we know – and no direct links between corruption and the president – my instinct is that they should not. This is not because Brazilians should resign themselves to corruption. Quite the contrary: I believe Brazil’s aggressive anticorruption campaign is positive. I simply agree with President Rousseff that corruption is everywhere, and that she did the right thing in “supporting laws that made it likely that all crimes would be investigated and punished.” Whatever the outcome of this presidential election, there has been a sea change in Brazil – a newly emerged middle class is demanding better public services and an end to corruption. Demands for change are now deeply rooted and, whether allegations of corruption move this presidential election, Brazilian politicians must heed those demands. We need to look no further than President Rousseff herself to see the shift. Earlier this year she said “no one and nothing will destroy Petrobras.” She now takes credit for uncovering Petrobras’s wrongdoing: “Never before have we fought and investigated as much as we investigate now. When you look, you find.” At least for the foreseeable future, Brazilians will continue to look.

2 thoughts on ““The Whole World Can Commit Corrupt Acts” : Petrobras and the Brazilian Election

  1. Interesting post, David. I am wondering, informed by your previous post about the interplay of anticorruption efforts and federalism in Brazil in the wake of the World Cup, how the federalism issue plays into the question of whether corruption should be relevant in presidential politics as well. Do you think that the president is simply a lightning rod for corruption issues and a lot of the work of fighting corruption will lie elsewhere (including at the local level), or can the president on his or her own take meaningful steps to curb corruption? Also, do you think the rising tide of middle class discontent will also reverberate in local elections?

  2. Has the Petrobras scandal signaled much of a change in how Rousseff/Brazilian politicians approach corruption? Or is it more of a case of getting called out for one particular egregious example and having to respond to that scandal in the context of a campaign, with bigger-scale change unlikely? You mention that public concern about corruption is deep-rooted–I suppose the question is whether politicians really must “heed those demands,” especially if corruption exists on both (/all) sides and voters don’t really have the option of the anticorruption candidate (all stated without much familiarity with the Brazilian situation). Maybe that hinges a bit on if this really is some sort of sea change period, but I guess I just haven’t had a sense that corruption has really been driven to such prominence in a way that politicians feel compelled to move on it.

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