Some Things Are More Important Than Corruption (Brazilian Elections Edition)

In the anticorruption community, it is fairly common to puzzle over—and bemoan—the fact that voters in many democracies seem to support candidates that are known or reputed to be corrupt. “Why,” we often ask, “do voters often elect or re-elect corrupt politicians, despite the fact that voters claim to despise corruption?” One of the common answers that we give to this question (an answer supported by some empirical research) is that even though voters dislike corruption, they care more about other things, and are often willing to overlook serious allegations of impropriety if a candidate or party is attractive for other reasons. We often make this observation ruefully, sometimes accompanied with the explicit or implicit wish that voters would make anticorruption a higher priority when casting their votes.

We should be careful what we wish for.

I had that thought about a week ago during an exchange with a Brazilian acquaintance about this month’s elections. This acquaintance—a bright young graduate student and researcher at a leading Brazilian university—was bemoaning the fact that she didn’t like any of the candidates in the election, which is something I’ve heard from lots of Brazilian friends (or for that matter lots of friends in many democracies these days, including the US—complaining about the lack of attractive choices seems fairly commonplace). But then she said something that brought me up short: She said that although she didn’t like any of the options, she planned to vote for Jair Bolsonaro. For those who don’t follow Brazilian politics, Bolsonaro is a far-right, quasi-fascist figure who his best known for his homophobia, sexism, racism, violent rhetoric, hostility to refugees, support of torture and capital punishment, and sympathy/admiration for the Brazilian military dictatorship that ruled the country before the transition to democracy in 1985, as well as for other autocrats and dictators throughout Latin America, including Fujimori in Peru and Pinochet in Chile. So I was taken aback, to say the least, when a cosmopolitan, open-minded, well-educated, intelligent young person said she would vote for such a candidate. When I gently pressed her as to why, her answer could be summed up in one word: corruption. More specifically, her disgust at the corruption of the Worker’s Party (the Partido dos Trabalhadores, or PT), the party of former Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) and Dilma Rousseff. As she put it, the so-called “Car Wash” (Lava Jato) investigation has demonstrated that the PT has some of the most corrupt politicians, many of whom—including Lula—have been involved in serious corruption scandals, and so she won’t ever vote for the PT or any of its candidates. Bolsonaro, she conceded, might be a bad choice, but at least under his leadership the country would suffer different problems, rather than the endemic corruption that characterized the period of PT rule.

When most of us in the anticorruption community say that we wish citizens made corruption a higher priority in their voting decisions, I don’t think this is what we had in mind. I have no idea how many Brazilian voters, like my acquaintance, held their noses and voted for Bolsonaro mainly out of disgust at the PT’s corruption, but I fear it may have been a sizeable number, and that this may explain why Bolsonaro did as well as he did in the first round of Brazil’s two-round presidential election system. (He received 46% of the vote, just short of the absolute majority he’d have needed to win outright in the first round, but he’s now the odds-on favorite to win in the second round, scheduled for October 28, in which his opponent will be the PT candidate.)

For what it’s worth, as Jessie persuasively argued in her post from early August, I think those Brazilians who believe that electing a figure like Bolsonaro will help address the country’s serious corruption problems are fooling themselves—the track record of such figures in places like Guatemala, Hungary, and the Philippines is not encouraging. But even if one were convinced that Bolsonaro was a cleaner option, his electoral success should serve as a reminder of something that should be obvious but that those of us who focus on corruption for a living sometimes seem to forget: There are indeed more important issues than corruption, sometimes voters are right to prioritize those other issues, and indeed sometimes it’s a bit terrifying if they don’t.

Beyond that simple, perhaps superficial observation, a couple of additional thoughts inspired by Bolsonaro’s terrifying popularity and its possible connection to the corruption scandals that have ensnared not just the PT but most of Brazil’s other mainstream parties:

  • First, as previous posts on this blog have pointed out (see here and here), there’s an eerie similarity between what’s currently going on in Brazil and what happened in Italy in the 1990s, where a massive—and quite justified—anticorruption investigation had the collateral effect of discrediting the major political parties and creating a vacuum that was filled by a dangerous, irresponsible populist (Berlusconi in Italy, Bolsonaro in Brazil). Many Brazilians, including some of the figures directly involved in the Lava Jato investigation, are well aware of this historical parallel, but it seems at the moment the country is hurtling down the same track. The more general problem that this highlights is one that I still don’t think anyone’s quite got a handle on: How to push ahead with a massive crackdown on corruption—one that implicates many if not most of the established parties—without creating an environment in which radical forces (from the left or right or some other direction) are able to gain traction. (An aside here: Though in a couple of previous posts, here and here, I criticized some commentators for suggesting that activists and international organizations stop pushing so hard for individual accountability in Ukraine, I acknowledge that the concerns those commentators raised do bear a family resemblance to what we’ve observed in places like Italy and Brazil. But I’m not sure how to balance that concern against the need to hold corrupt actors accountable, without which no progress will ever be made.)
  • Second, although the theme of this post is that, once the election is underway, it’s sometimes appropriate (even morally obligatory) to subordinate understandable concern over corruption to other issues, what’s going on in Brazil—and what we’ve seen in other places like Guatemala, the Philippines, and elsewhere—should also serve as a reminder of why it’s so important to make corruption a high priority at other times. Yes, we go through long stretches when voters seem not to care much about corruption, at least when it comes to their actual voting decisions as opposed to general complaining. But when anticorruption sentiments boil over, they don’t necessarily lead to positive changes; instead, anger and frustration over corruption can fuel the rise of dangerous populists who deploy “tough talk” and the promise of a radical break with the corrupt past to seize power and push a divisive or repressive agenda. Failure to take the corruption problem seriously during “normal times” may lead to shock and dismay when the backlash hits.

22 thoughts on “Some Things Are More Important Than Corruption (Brazilian Elections Edition)

  1. Thank you Professor Stephenson for this interesting, thought provoking post.

    I have actually been thinking about the question of what role corruption plays in people’s voting decisions in democratic elections, in a context that is different from the Brazilian elections. While, as you mentioned, corruption may not be a main issue for many voters, I was wondering whether there is reliable data about its importance to people from different age groups, genders, socio-economic status, or even political orientation.

    By the way, the normative question of how corruption allegations should affect people’s decision regarding their support for the presiding leader is recurring in Israel. There’s even a current (highly theoretical) ongoing debate in Israeli media about a similar question. (See, for example,

    • Great, thanks very much! It doesn’t surprise me that similar issues play out in other countries.

      There is some research on how different groups react to corruption information, but I’m not aware of any that really breaks it down by demographic categories in the way you suggest. There is, if memory serves, a quite robust (though unsurprising) finding that people tend to view corruption as a bigger deal when it’s perpetrated by a politician they dislike for other reasons; people are more likely to ignore or simply disbelieve allegations of corruption against the politicians they like.

  2. The Brazilian example is extreme and I honestly feel bad for any voter who has to make this decision. I think it is nicely illustrated by the “Ele Nao” campaign which flooded my Facebook feed by storm with most of my Brazilian friends using the hashtag to express their voting preference: “Not Him”. I think it is very telling that the campaign was not FOR any politician, it was simply AGAINST the one they thought to be evil.

    This reminds me of many cases even in my own home country where politicians with corrupt past got re-elected. Most of the time, the voters rationalized it by saying “At least he / she was doing SOMETHING”. I think this really shows how disillusioned voters have become in this day and age – it is as if nobody expects politicians to be integral, smart AND effective – and people are ready to settle for someone, who regardless of the seemingly inevitable flaws (including corruption), at least advances some fields of the public life. In other words, it is not even that people elect politicians for other, more important things – but rather because they feel such a sense of fatigue for politicians not doing anything for the better, that they vote for anyone who takes care at least of some of the problems (fixing the roads, fixing some persistent households problems, etc.)…

  3. Another ugly truth is that inefficiency costs Brazil and Brazilians more than corruption does, and is a lot easier to counteract.

    • Interesting point, Brad! I’d be interested in reading more about the inefficiencies in the Brazilian government–do you have any articles or studies that provide an informative overview? I always think it’s interesting to think about corruption–and anticorruption–from an opportunity-cost perspective. That is, would the resources spent on anticorruption be more efficiently spent elsewhere?

      All of the above, however, cannot quantify the broader political impact that corruption can have. We may never know precisely how big of an issue corruption played in the Jair Bolsonaro’s election victory–but political views notwithstanding, whenever corruption becomes a hot-button issue that can turn folks into single-issue voters (and swing elections), the “costs” of corruption become virtually incalculable.

    • Thanks! This is a very helpful and thoughtful piece, which I encourage others to read as well. That said, while it’s useful in many ways, I’m not sure it really addresses the bigger problems I flag at the end of the post.

  4. You Problably have a lot of leftist friends. They are the only ones who can defend a candidate who is controlling a campaign directly from the jail were he is paying time for CORRUPTION. And this blog have the funny tick to call it self “anti corruption blog” – ok then.

    Bolsonaro just had 48% of the votes and the corrupt leftist candidate had 20%.. it seens that Brazil is really “anti corruption” – this blog, not so much.


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  6. Professor Stephenson,

    Thank you for this post! I actually had a conversation about this very issue a few nights ago with a Brazilian friend from Rio, and both of us expressed the same frustration with the idea that people would vote for such an extreme candidate like Bolsonaro after everything he’s said and proven himself to be just because they’re tired of corruption and violence. We (and the majority of my PT supporting friends) felt that Bolsonaro made even Temer (who I’ve heard referred to as “pure evil”) look like a good option. While I personally believe that the fear that Haddad is going to turn Brazil into Venezuela is an extreme exaggeration, I do understand that people are afraid that he’s just an extension of Lula and the PT’s corruption. That being said, I wonder if you have any insight into why more moderate and centrist candidates like Alckmin aren’t being considered as serious alternatives to Haddad or Bolsonaro?

  7. Highly relevant discussion, but at the same time perhaps oversimplifying corruption a bit. Similar discussions took place within the Czech Republic where some have argued that competence drove voters’ decisions to elect Babis while he was openly dealing with corruption allegations. With his promise to run the country like a business, however, many voters accepted Babis’s clear and many conflicts of interest. The question here is not whether people thought that was less important than corruption, but more how the previous (corrupt) elites have paved the way for such political fringe parties to root. Patronage networks, favoritism, etc. were the norm in the Czech Republic and impacted the efficiency of the state. With a state that can’t deliver and politicians widely mistrusted, political narratives about candidate X being more competent resonate well. Bolsonaro is, other than racist, quasi-fascist, homophobe, etc., also seen as competent. And that perceived competence may actually be driven by a genuine desire to deal with corruption. After all, corruption is widely seen as hampering growth and achieving higher living standards. In other words, corruption is not the issue, it is a proxy to far more serious issues such as unemployment that we (and voters alike) often correlate with each other. And aren’t these issues understandably more important than say, someone’s stance on capital punishment or admiration for previous dictatorships? Who are we to blame the Brazilian electorate for wanting to steer their country into a more prosperous direction? The implicit dichotomy here, corrupt vs. no corrupt politicians (who may be terrible on all other fronts) is equally troublesome. Perhaps voters simply acknowledge the infinitely more complex reality and are willing to compromise by voting the ‘least corrupt’ or ‘least best’ candidate? In doing so, they may be naive, but they certainly step aside from the apparent oversimplification here of corruption as a stand-alone issue. Corruption has compromised the integrity of the decision-making process and weakened institutions; investments in Brazilian infrastructure are lacking behind, operation Car Wash is said to have wrecked the economy, and the Odebrecht scandal led to 100.000 lost jobs. Whether Bolsonaro is the right person to fix this remains an open question (and for Brazilian voters to decide), but reducing this to a discussion of alleged ‘false’ support towards the cause of anti-corruption is oversimplifying things (that is not to say I don’t share your concern over his extremism, temper and value-set).

  8. Dear Professor, your article is very interesting. However, if I have not misunderstood the whole argument, it suggests that the sole assessment performed by Bolsonaro´s voters ponders corruption against “quasi-fascism, homophobia, sexism, racism, violent rhetoric, hostility to refugees, support of torture and capital punishment, and sympathy/admiration for the Brazilian military dictatorship”. Would you be so kind as to tell me if you have taken into account if any voters at all might ascribe the same or similar predicates to the opposing candidate or his possible cabinet/administration? If so, would it affect the argument? I mean, what if the dilemma wasn´t the choice between a corrupt administration and a dictatorial one, but between two equaly dictatorial, torture-approving etc administrations, albeit with different target groups? Thank you for your attention.

  9. Your points about Bolsonaro’s personality are highly debatable. Worker’s Party pushed some agendas that might be classified as corruption, although it is not always about money. Many researches show that Brazilians are conservative folk. They tried to push what many see as pornographic content to children, something only Bolsonaro brought to light. Even when Venezuela failures continue to add up, they are still saying it’s an admirable democracy. The party is corrupt to the very soul. It is definitely not only about money. If you are serious about understanding the Brazilian politics you will have to go way beyond what you exposed here. For starters, take a look on a recent video Olavo de Carvalho uploaded on his site. It is titled in English and has subtitles. From there you can see peculiarities about our military regime, that engaged violent revolutionaries leaving the universities and the press to the left, even helping them push their ideas. When the regime ended, a new constitution was created, one that makes it very hard for a criminal to stay in prison and gives free ride for underaged criminals to terrorize the population. There are more than 60,000 violent deaths per year. On google maps, go and place the little yellow guy on streets in Brazil. Look for houses without big walls or electrical fences. Take a look on how windows have metal bars that makes them look more like a jail cell. Put it on Avenida Brasil in Rio de Janeiro. See how many places the google car didn’t enter. Then you will begin to understand why topics such as gay rights pale in comparison to many situations we have here.

    • He doesn’t care, it’s another leftist gringo shill spouting nonsense and fake news about others’ countries and trying to guilt-trip people to vote for a vile, extremely corrupt party who openly defends every tyrant from Venezuela to North Korea to Iran, who is praised by and praises FARC on their website (now they’re deleting it), who got illegal money from African dictators to run their campaign and who openly promise to free a jailed criminal (who gives orders to them from jail), to release other criminals, to muzzle police and prosecutors, to effectively end the Car-Wash operation, to censor the press and make promotions in the armed forces based on political loyalty from officers.
      PT is a cancer and we’re getting rid of it, whether foreign progressives like it or not: it’s our country, not theirs, were not some little punk these people can boss around.

      • I’m always happy to learn what I can about other countries’ politics. I’ll ignore the insults, which don’t get anyone anywhere when it comes to genuine learning and engagement, and ask instead if you can provide sources for the claims that the PT defends the leaders of Venezuela, North Korea, and Iran, as well as FARC, and received illegal campaign contributions from African dictators (which ones?). I did some quick internet searches but couldn’t find anything on this. Could you please post the links to the sources for these very serious allegations, so I (along with other readers) can understand and evaluate the allegations? Thanks.

        • Bolsonaro’s campaign is mostly based on spreading fake news on social media. There are endless forged texts, pictures and videos that target the Worker’s Party running across messaging apps. This has strengthened the neofascist rise. Bolsonaro’s supporters have been verbally and physically attacking opponents, some have even been murdered. Unlike some of those allegations against the PT, you can easily find proof of the attacks that are happening.

          Just like Jews were Hitler’s main target as a chosen scapegoat to be destroyed in order to “save” the country, Bolsonaro has the PT as his scapegoat. He even said in a speech that he would shoot the “petralhada” (a slang for PT supporters). For what I’ve studied about fascism, I don’t think the quasi preffix is appropriate. He is an actual fascist (just living in the 21st century), even though many of his voters aren’t. They’re mostly just biased by this massive storm of fake news. But there are also those who willingly support him and his hate speeches.

  10. Hy Matthew, thank you for the excelent text. It does make sense in many common situations throughout the world. But in Brazil this has been unique. I am not sure how familiar you are with Brazilian politics, the current candidates, their government plans and current economic situation. People tend to simplify the discussion on corruption or neo-fascism but it is much more than that. I will not go through all the details as it could take weeks of information, data and analysis to be put together but I will try to summarize a few points to bring other perspectives into play. First is the fact that Haddad’s official government plans state clearly the intention of creating social control over media (bringing risk to freedom of speech) and over independent State institutions including the ones related to justice. This is already a point of concern and potentially brings both candidates to equality in terms of reducing liberty. Another important point ibto this is that one of most important leaders of Haddad’s party PT recently stated to El Pais (spanish newspaper) that “PT will not win the elections, they will take power”, which reinforces the anti-democratic mindset of the party.
    A second important point to be viewed is the fact that PT is a party that fights to protect minorities and women. This is also very easely challanged by the fact that they have been in power running the country for 14 years and we see a huge increase during this period in violent murders (even greater if you see number of murders of african descendants), murders of gays and lesbians just because of their choice, rapes, and violence against women. If you are interested in the official statistics, I can definitely share with you. So, there is a strong sentiment in the country of unsafety and the fact that the PT party at least failed on this point if not actually been completely absent.
    A third important point is the situation of the Brazilian economy and all the bad policies that PT took that made the country hit the worst recession ever (even worse than 1930’s) with 13% of the population unemployed and another 5% that already quit looking for jobs. Poverty has skyrocketed to historical highs. The country is also being challenged to the fact that government may go bankrupt if drastic measures are not taken, which could push Brazil to have an economy like African countries or even Venezuela.
    There are many other points that I could raise, like the populist measures that PT implements in the most poor areas of the country to create a long term dependency of the population over the PT party so they maintain power and do not move these poor people to become real citizens, with capacity to thing and live by them selves, lack of investment in education (which for me is the most crucial point that any government in Brazil should think of) and others.
    Because of all that and much more, the majority of Brazilians are looking for change, although the alternatives that showed up are not the best. Following a very popular quotation, don’t expect different results by doing the same thing, Brazilians want to have a better country and will not achieve by insisting on voting for PT. Lastly, as I showed above, It is not all about corruption.

    • Perfect feedback to the nice article.

      As a libertarian Brazilian, I despise both and was able to analyze both programs (and candidates) without passion. They are both terrible and I see foreign intellectuals not receiving full data so they can properly see the whole dilemma we face.

      I dont think Bolso is going to enact exclusive or murderous public policies in the medium or long term, but his minions are becoming violent due to his speeches. Also, he refuses to take responsibility for their actions and calm everyone down. Minorities are suffering violence in Brazil rn bc of this, and I think it may get worse.

      In the other hand, people have been herded for so long in the poorer regions of Brazil such as the northeast that no one really can quantify how many victims of government abuse leading to all kinds of horrible consequences exist. If PT remains in power I think its only going to be worse. And then we have all the problems already discussed by Frederico, the most important being the increasingly authoritarian speech. They’ve been in power for so long that I don’t think they’ll enjoy the idea of risking losing the next election more than they are risking rn.

      BRs are facing a train dilemma here, there is no other way to put it.

  11. Hello,

    great text, but corruption is not the only thing that worries me about PT.
    On 2016, we removed a PT president from office. In that year, the party launched a manifesto to its militants.

    Click to access Resolu—-es-sobre-conjuntura-Maio-2016.pdf

    If you go to the last paragraph of page 4, you will read something that is more or less like this:
    “We were careless of the necessity to reform the state, which would imply stopping the conservative sabotage from the Federal Police and the Public Ministry; modifing the curriculum of the military academies; promoting officers with nationalist and democratic commitment (…)”

    Knowing that PT just had a president removed for corruption, do you think the “democratic commitment” means exactly that or maybe they wanted to create loyalty to the PT in the armed forces?
    If they are lamenting lack of influence in the armed forces, does that mean that they tried to use them to stop the legal proccess of removing the president?

    Some people say that it was just some hot headed writing at the time of an impeachment. But one week before the first term of the elections, José Dirceu (strong figure within the PT, rivaled only by Lula himself) gave an interview in which he said that PT would “take power, and that did not mean winning an election”. He also spoke of limiting the power of several public institutions, which makes sense because he took the fall for many of the party’s corruption scandals.

    So, for my part, I think that voting for Haddad is the certainty of a dictatorship. Voting for Bolsonaro is the possibility of a democracy (because he will have so many people opposing him).

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  13. Pingback: Narrativa da anticorrupção como movimento partidário se firmou, diz professor de Harvard – JOTA – Portal Osso Duro de Roer

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