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.