Which corruption investigation was preceded by a massive outcry against corruption, was advanced by federal prosecutors making liberal use of the plea bargain, implicated hundreds of politicians (including former and current heads of state), raised serious questions about the role of the independent judiciary, and ultimately resulted in a dramatic political crisis that led to the replacement of a long-standing populist regime with a conservative government bent on reform?
If you guessed Brazil’s Lava Jato (English: Car Wash), you’d be correct.
But if you answered Italy’s Mani Pulite (English: Clean Hands), you’d also be right.
The similarities between the two anticorruption investigations and subsequent prosecutions are no coincidence. In 2004, Brazilian Judge Sérgio Moro, currently responsible for Lava Jato, penned an essay praising the Clean Hands operation, calling it “one of the most impressive judicial crusades against political and administrative corruption,” lamenting Brazil’s failure to engage in a crusade of similar import, and setting a roadmap for the country to do so, based largely on the perceived successful tactics of Italy’s Clean Hands.
Over the last three years, Brazil’s Car Wash operation has followed Moro’s roadmap. But, as Alberto Vannucci has pointed out, Clean Hands was far from an unqualified success—on the contrary, the headline-grabbing, establishment-shaking operation arguably left the country even more mired in corruption than before. Last year, GAB contributor Daniel Binette (channeling Vannucci) predicted that Brazil could face three major challenges in the wake of Car Wash: (1) a collapse of major political parties, (2) the remote possibility of a coup, as occurred in Thailand in 2014, and (3) a loss of public confidence in the anticorruption probe itself. Some of Binette’s predictions have proven prescient, while the accuracy of others remains to be seen.
Collapse of Major Political Parties
The Clean Hands revelations brought Italy’s major parties, the Italian Socialist Party and the Christian Democrats, to the brink of collapse. Brazil’s leading parties appear likely to face a similar fate. On August 31, 2016, in an attempt to quell a broad public outcry over the Car Wash scandal, Brazil’s Senate (including many from her own party) voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff of the Workers’ Party, just four weeks before nationwide municipal elections. The parties often associated with the Car Wash scandal, Rousseff’s Workers’ Party (PT) and current President Michel Temer’s Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), suffered significant losses in the local elections, with PT losing mayorships in four of the five state capitals it had previously controlled, including São Paulo, and PMDB losing Rio de Janeiro.
Whether these losses presage the impending collapse of the parties implicated in the Car Wash will be determined over the course of several election cycles. But some already see the far-left Socialism and Liberty Party (PSOL) filling a vacuum created by the fall of the center-left Workers’ Party, which, fairly or unfairly, is the party most commonly associated with the scheme at the center of the Car Wash scandal, by virtue of its grip on the reins of national politics since 2002 and its eager exploitation of the patronage opportunities that followed.
While Binette’s fear of a military takeover a la Thailand was not realized, the former President Rousseff and her supporters have taken to calling the impeachment and the subsequent ascent of current President Temer a “golpe parlamentar,” or a “parliamentary coup.” The invocation of the term “coup” harkens back to the 1964 military takeover that replaced President João Goulart, who was intent on implementing populist reforms, with a right-leaning authoritarian military dictatorship. Since taking office, President Temer, an expert in Brazilian constitutional law, has not been shy about implementing a conservative agenda which includes a constitutional amendment that limits public spending to current levels for 20 years, privatization of certain state-controlled assets including airports, and granting international oil companies concessions to explore Brazil’s plentiful but difficult-to-access pre-salt oil resources. He has also become a target of the Car Wash investigation.
To be clear, while President Rousseff’s Workers’ Party figures prominently in the Car Wash scandal, the President herself was not accused of corruption. The legal basis for former President Rousseff’s impeachment was her use of a widely-employed technical budget maneuver called a pedalada that may be considered a “crime of responsibility” as per Brazil’s constitution and is sufficient grounds for impeachment. That said, the pedalada was a pretext. What ultimately led to Rousseff’s impeachment was not her own illicit behavior, but rather her failure to manage the difficult task of maintaining a coalition in the face of nearly unprecedented public outrage over declining economic fortunes and the Car Wash scandal.
Loss of Public Confidence in the Car Wash Operation
As President Rousseff’s case makes clear, public outrage may be directed at perhaps undeserving targets. Even the Clean Hands investigation, while initially popular, eventually lost the confidence of the Italian public, as the public began to perceive the investigations as politically motivated. In his essay on Clean Hands, Judge Moro noted the importance of public opinion in anticorruption actions: “Perhaps the most important lesson from [Clean Hands] is that judicial action against corruption is only effective when it has the support of democracy. . . . So long as the action can count on the support of public opinion, it will show positive results.”
Car Wash could be at risk of similar ignominy. In an October 2016 Pesquisa CNT/MDA survey, nearly 60% of respondents said they believe either that the investigation is bad for Brazil, or that it will have some benefits for Brazil but that is not being pursued impartially. In the February 2017 edition of the survey, only one third of those surveyed said they believed that Car Wash would get rid of or significantly reduce the level of corruption in Brazil in the coming years.
Political developments surrounding Rousseff’s impeachment have stoked public skepticism of the operation. Last May, secret recordings surfaced of Brazilian politicians advocating impeachment as a means to halt the investigation. And in a last-minute midnight session in September, Brazil’s lower house nearly voted to grant amnesty to the politicians implicated in the Car Wash investigation.
Also contributing to public skepticism is the manner in which the investigations have proceeded, which some have perceived as unduly focused on the Workers’ Party. While the most recent round of probes, which implicates more than a third of President Michel Temer’s cabinet, should put a damper on accusations of partisanship, Judge Moro’s legally dubious release of a wiretapped conversation between former President Lula and then-President Rousseff led many to conclude the investigation bore a distinctly partisan slant. This, combined with the broad use of preventive custody, recalls the excesses of the Clean Hands investigation and the loss of public confidence which accompanied them.
Some fear the parallels between the two investigations don’t end there. Italy’s Clean Hands investigation ultimately resulted in the rise of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who made a run for the office the wake of the Clean Hands scandal. Brazil’s controversial conservative populist politician Jair Bolsonaro (whose outspoken and aggressive manner has earned him comparisons to U.S. President Donald Trump) made a name for himself in the protests preceding Rousseff’s impeachment. He recently announced his intention to run for President in 2018.