Brazil’s Electoral Dilemma: Which Outcome Will Be Better for Anticorruption?

My post last week expressed some dismay at the political situation in Brazil, and the role that understandable disgust at widespread corruption in the left-wing Worker’s Party (PT), which controlled the presidency from 2003 to 2016, seems to be playing in contributing to the astonishing electoral success of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro—whose extremist views, history of bigotry, violent rhetoric, and admiration for autocrats has led some to label him, with justification, as a quasi-fascist—was the top vote-getter in the first round of Brazilian’s two-round presidential election system, and he is favored to win the run-off against PT candidate Fernando Haddad on October 28. Though I’m no expert on Brazil or its politics, this situation—voter revulsion at the corruption of the mainstream parties leading to the rise of a tough-talking extremist—is distressingly familiar. It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out in several countries now, usually with quite unfortunate consequences. So, much as I believe that corruption is a serious problem, and tend to support aggressive anticorruption efforts—including the so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigations in Brazil—I used my last post to express my dismay that anticorruption sentiments might propel someone like Bolsonaro to victory. Some things, I argued, are more important than corruption.

The post seems to have touched a nerve—I’ve gotten far more feedback on that post (some in the public comments section, some in private communications) than anything else I’ve written in the four and half years I’ve been blogging about corruption. While some of the comments have been the sort of substance-free invective one gets used to on the internet, a lot of people have provided useful, thoughtful, constructive criticism and pushback of various kinds. So I thought that perhaps it would be worth doing another post on this general topic, and connecting my thoughts about the current Brazilian political situation to some more general themes or problems that those of us who work on anticorruption need to confront, whether or not we have any particular interest in Brazil.

So, first, some clarifications:

  • Some of those who took issue with last week’s post argued that the PT is much worse than I recognized; It’s not just corruption, they said, but the PT is also has autocratic, anti-liberal tendencies, is responsible for Brazil’s economic crisis and crime problem, and, if returned to power, would pursue policies that would turn Brazil into Venezuela. That assessment strikes me as a bit extreme based on what I’ve read, but I certainly am no expert, and I’m not going to take a position on the PT’s pros and cons outside of the corruption issue. As an outsider, my commentary is limited to the role that disgust at PT corruption does or should play in the electoral decision.
  • Other critics responded to my post by asserting that Bolsonaro isn’t as bad as the mainstream media makes him sound, and that his more outrageous quotes are just bluster, or taken out of context, or something. Here again, as an outsider (or, as one of my less charitable commenters put it, a “gringo shill spouting nonsense”), I’m reluctant to take a strong position on another country’s politicians. But I have to say, I’ve read enough about Bolsonaro that I’m not persuaded that he’s deep down a decent guy who’s just a bit rough around the edges. And though I’m no Brazil expert, I feel like I’ve seen this movie before, including in my own country. Donald Trump campaigned as an angry, unstable bigot, and lo and behold he has governed as an angry, unstable bigot. But again, my focus is on the corruption issue, and my objective, in my last post and this one, is not to try to convince those who think Bolsonaro isn’t really a racist sexist homophobic demagogue who fetishizes violence and has dictatorial tendencies, but rather to engage with those who think that characterization of Bolsonaro is approximately correct, but who nonetheless view him as the lesser of two evils, given the PT’s history of corruption, and who believe that a disruptive figure like Bolsonaro has the best chance of breaking the cycle of endemic corruption and taking Brazil in a new direction.

I don’t want to simply restate what I said in my last post. Rather, I want to offer some additional thoughts on why the current situation in Brazil—and the choice that Brazilian voters face when they cast their ballots 12 days from now—dismays me so much. It has to do with the process of building up in Brazil the still-fragile institutional checks and balances—especially in the prosecution service and judiciary—that are essential for getting the corruption problem under control. It’s true that sometimes anticorruption crackdowns are driven by individual leaders, and sometimes those campaigns are successful. Lee Kwan Yew in Singapore is probably the most well-known example, though Mikheil Saakashvili’s efforts in Georgia after the 2003 Rose Revolution are also sometimes cited as an illustration of a successful top-down cleanup. But based on my admittedly cursory and qualitative observations, it seems that more often than not, achieving genuine, long-term progress against endemic corruption requires sustained institutional reforms, the rise of a culture of professionalism and independence in the civil service, prosecution service, and judiciary, along with an independent media and robust civil society. Making progress against corruption is also enhanced by the emergence of stable political parties that are organized around programs and ideologies rather than individual personality cults. For a programmatic party, after all, an individual politician, even an effective and charismatic one, is dispensable, and so a politician tainted by scandal can be cut loose for the good of the party—and will be, if the party is concerned about its long-term reputation.

My impression—again as an outsider who speaks no Portuguese and has visited Brazil a grand total of one time—is that over the last two decades, Brazil had actually been making quite a bit of progress in this direction. There’s some irony in saying this, because of course we now know, thanks to the Car Wash investigation, that the last 20 years were also a time of massive corruption, particularly though not exclusively in connection with Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. Yet during this same period, reforms were taking root, some of them grounded in the 1988 Constitution, others adopted subsequently. Prosecutorial autonomy, judicial independence, stronger state auditing institutions, a robust media, and the like—along with increasing public dissatisfaction with corruption—all seemed to suggest slow but steady progress in the right direction.

Alas, the two remaining contenders for Brazil’s presidency both represent factions that seem hostile to genuinely independent and effective anticorruption institutions, and who are likely to take positions and pursue policies that undermine those institutions.

  • On the one side, we have the PT. As I mentioned above, I don’t know nearly enough to have a position on the PT’s economic or social agenda, or a view concerning allegations that the PT has antidemocratic tendencies. But I do know something about the PT’s record on corruption, and it’s not good. What infuriates me the most about the PT on the corruption issue is not so much the extent of corruption during the period of PT rule. After all, the Car Wash investigation has led to the conviction of many Brazilian political figures across a number of parties, and if PT politicians are disproportionately represented among those convicted, I doubt it’s because PT politicians were less ethical than those from other parties. Rather, as the party in power for most of the relevant time period, PT politicians had more opportunities to abuse their authority. What upsets me much more than the exposure of corruption by PT figures is the way the PT and its supporters have reacted to the Car Wash investigation, in particular after the conviction of former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) and the impeachment of former president Dilma Rousseff. I have no view on the allegations against Dilma (I simply haven’t read enough). The allegations against Lula—at least the ones that led to his conviction and incarceration—strike me as quite plausible, though relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. Of course I’m not in a position to assess the evidence or Brazilian law myself, and I could be wrong. And I gather some prosecutorial tactics and judicial rulings have been criticized, as is often the case. But the reaction of many PT supporters has been to declare the entire Car Wash operation a sham, a coup d’etat, a vast right-wing conspiracy, motivated by hostility to left-wing policies and to Lula personally. The PT supporters went well beyond alleging errors in judgment or even bias by individual prosecutors and judges, but rather they have waged a sustained campaign to discredit the prosecution service and judiciary, in order to undermine the legitimacy of the conviction of one political figure: Lula. (Moreover, Lula insisted on running as the PT candidate in the current election right up until the last minute, when it became clear that under Brazil’s clean elections law, which Lula himself signed into law, his name wouldn’t appear on the ballot—which from where I sit looks like the act of an egomaniac who cares more about perpetuating his personality cult than about his country’s political stability or advancing his party’s agenda.) I can totally understand why Brazilians who care deeply about corruption, and support that Car Wash investigation, would react to this attempted delegitimization of Brazil’s semi-autonomous legal and judicial institutions by wanting to punish the PT at the polls. If after all this the PT candidate wins, might that not be read as a repudiation of Car Wash, and of the prosecutors and judges who played a role in these investigations?
  • I get that, and I sympathize. But on the other side, we have Bolsonaro. As I said in my last post, I think that even if Bolsonaro were the “cleaner” candidate, and even if a PT victory might be read as a repudiation of Car Wash and a setback for genuine anticorruption reform in Brazil, Bolsonaro’s bigotry, evident malice, and autocratic tendencies ought to be disqualifying. But for now I’m willing to put that aside and focus on a different question: From the perspective of developing Brazil’s anticorruption institutions, would Bolsonaro be better? And here I want to build on Jessie’s post from last August to argue that, while we can’t know for sure, international experience with leaders who seem cut from the same cloth suggests that despite his tough talk, Bolsonaro would likely set back the fight against corruption in Brazil. Indeed, it’s precisely that aggressive, “disruptive,” let’s-blow-everything-up rhetoric, coupled with foreign parallels, that makes me so nervous. It’s become common (including on this blog) to compare Brazil’s situation to that of Italy in the 1990s, with Bolsonaro as the Berlusconi figure. The comparison is apt in many respects, but for present purposes I’d point to three other examples that are even more worrisome.
    • First, consider Hungary. In the run-up to the 2010 elections, the ruling left-wing party (the MSZP) was beset by serious corruption scandals, which helped propel the far-right Fidesz party, led by Viktor Orban, to power. Since then, Orban’s party has concentrated power, weakened or eliminated checks and balances, and relied on xenophobic and divisive rhetoric to maintain its support. And far from cleaning up corruption in Hungary, by most accounts the problem has gotten far worse. Orban was not serious about cleaning up corruption; he and his cronies had an extreme right-wing nationalist agenda, and they cleverly stoked voter anger over corruption to take power—only to use that power to enrich themselves and to undermine independent checks on that power.
    • Second, consider the Philippines. Rodrigo Duterte, like Bolsonaro, uses a lot of tough-on-crime rhetoric (as well as crude, sometimes vile language about women), and a large part of his appeal, and success in winning the presidency in 2016, had to do with his promise to crack down on street crime, especially drug crime, without much concern for due process or basic human rights. But Duterte also exploited Philippine citizens’ understandable frustration and disgust with the corruption that had plagued previous administrations; he promised to purge the government of corruption. It hasn’t gone very well. Sure, his “zero tolerance” policy led to a bunch of terminations or resignations of senior officials. But Duterte, his cronies, and his family are now dogged by quite serious corruption allegations of their own, and his main response—which shouldn’t really come as a surprise to anyone—is to launch an aggressive attack on the Office of the Ombudsman (the Philippines’ independent anticorruption prosecutor), attacking the Ombudsman herself—an experienced public servant with a sterling reputation, who has since departed—of being part of a conspiracy to oust him, and has fired other officials in the Ombudsman’s Office on dubious, likely pretextual grounds. The corruption situation in the Philippines has not improved under Duterte, and may well have gotten worse.
    • Third, consider Guatemala, a country a bit closer to Brazil both geographically and culturally. In the aftermath of investigations by the UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission (known by its Spanish acronym CICIG), which led to the resignations and arrests of the former president Otto Perez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti on corruption charges, the 2015 presidential election was won by former comedian Jimmy Morales, who ran as a political outsider untainted by the pervasive corruption that implicated so many of Guatemala’s established parties and political figures. His campaign slogan, “not corrupt, not a thief,” could not have been any more explicit. But some, including Rathna in a prescient commentary posted on this blog right after his election, foresaw that Morales would not really be committed to fighting corruption in Guatemala. And lo, it has come to pass: Just this past summer, in what seems like a sick joke, President Morales took the step that his predecessor, President Molina, was unwilling to take even though it led to his arrest: President Morales announced the termination of CICIG’s mandate, a move that, unless somehow stopped, would effectively eliminate the institution that had done the most to move the fight against corruption forward.

These cases, though obviously different in many respects, share important similarities with each other. Disgust with the widespread corruption of the previous regime fuels voter anger, and a belief that only an “outsider” or “strongman”—untethered to the political establishment and willing to “shake things up”—will be able to solve the problem. The disruptive populist figure combines anticorruption rhetoric with tough talk and a strain of crude bigotry that for some reason many voters treat as a sign of “authenticity,” a willingness to “tell it like it is.” After winning power, though, the new leader’s selfishness, lack of respect for conventional norms, and disrespect for institutional checks and balances manifests itself in an attack on the country’s independent anticorruption institutions, often with insinuations of conspiracy, coupled with more aggressive attempts to centralize power. The corruption and cronyism problem doesn’t get better—if anything, it gets worse, and lasting damage to institutions is inflicted along the way. So when people I like and respect say things like, “Well, Bolsonaro is pretty awful, but at least he’ll do something about corruption,” I hope you will understand my reasons for skepticism.

Where does that leave Brazil? Both possible outcomes in the presidential election seem bad, at least from the perspective of consolidating and further strengthening the institutional framework necessary to keep corruption in check. I don’t cast a ballot next month, and as I can’t emphasize enough, as a foreigner I just don’t feel comfortable telling anyone else how they should vote in this situation, especially since there are many other factors in play, not just corruption. But if you want to know which outcome I think would be better (or at least less-bad) from the perspective of the long-term fight against corruption in Brazil, I think I’d go with Haddad and the PT. True, a PT victory, after all of the conspiracy-mongering by Lula’s supporters, would send a bad message. But a victory by a party that knows its image is tainted, and that eked out a victory by the skin of its teeth only because many voters who don’t like it were scared off by the alternative, is more probably more likely to tread cautiously and respect institutional guardrails than a firebrand populist who thinks he has a mandate to remake the country in his image.

As before, I welcome commentary and feedback, including vigorous criticisms of anything I’ve said here.

12 thoughts on “Brazil’s Electoral Dilemma: Which Outcome Will Be Better for Anticorruption?

  1. Both posts are excellent, Matthew. As someone who does research on Brazil (and corruption) I really appreciate your explicit self-awareness and carefulness in writing about Brazil. But my sense is that you are also right on the money on both posts. First, Bolsonaro is not a decent guy who has been misrepresented as a bigot. He has strong authoritarian tendencies and he is a bigot, which is clear and evident in looking at his political career. Second, looking only at corruption issues, Bolsonaro is outright scary. Not only because of the comparisons you rightfully point to, but also because his ideas and proposals in addressing corruption are as vague as they are uninformed. The PT has lots of problems, and perhaps most importantly, it lacks any sort of self-critique, self-awareness, or recognition of all the mistakes and problems it has had over the years. Still, it is, in my view, by far the lesser of two evils.

    • Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad to know that, despite being a relatively uninformed foreign observer, my take corresponds to yours. I hadn’t paid much attention to Bolsonaro’s specific proposals (or lack thereof); one of the points I perhaps should have made in the post, but didn’t, is that these other figures who seem like possible parallels (Orban, Duterte, Morales, and also Berlusconi and Trump) were also characterized by a dearth of specific proposals or even a general plan — the emphasis, instead, was on a particular personal style (blunt, aggressive, “non-PC”, etc.) that many voters seemed to treat as evidence of authenticity and resolve rather than bluster and anger. Still trying to figure out why that is….

  2. Another great post! Here is my small contribution to the discussion:

    Although I myself never voted for PT and have always been critical of the party (not least because of its refusal to acknowledge the extent to which corruption was present in their administration), I do think that people tend to overestimate the danger that PT represents to the anti-corruption agenda.

    During its 14 years in power, PT was responsible for the largest corruption scandal ever unveiled in Brazilian history. That is true. During those same 14 years, however, the legal and institutional anticorruption framework was greatly strengthened. The Federal Police and Prosecutors gained more autonomy and important laws were approved (e.g. the law of organized criminality, which finally introduced plea bargain in the brazilian legal system).

    These two movements seem contradictory, but they are not, for two reasons.

    First, it’s important to keep in mind that political parties are not monolithical entities. Indeed, while some members of PT were busy creating an unprecedented corruption network, other members were actively pushing for transparency and anti-corruption legislation, a great part of which was only approved because of the endorsement by the ministers of justices (first, Marcio Thomas Bastos and later José Eduardo Cardozo).

    Those two different groups coexisted and continue to coexist inside PT. And even though I think Haddad’s insistance on Lula’s innocence is harmful, I must admit that he seems to be a part of the second group (those who pushed for stronger and independent institutions). Indeed, during his years as Education Minister, there were no charges of corruption whatsoever. More importantly, during his years as Mayor of São Paulo he was responsible for creating one of the most advanced internal control systems in Brazil, which was able to detect and get rid of a group of corrupt tax officials who caused billions of dollars of damage throughout the years.

    That doesn’t mean that there are no risks in the election of Haddad. He hasn’t expressly denied the possibility of giving presidential pardon to Lula and it’s unclear whether he would be able to keep the more radical groups inside PT under control.

    But here comes the second reason why those two movements mentioned before are not necessarily contradictory: the Constitution of 1988 was successful in creating institutions autonomous in relation to the President. A number of mechanisms created by the constitution created a stronger separation between state burocracy and political positions. The Federal Police and the IRS, for instance, became increasingly professionalized and immune to outside political influence; the same can be said about the Judiciary and the Prosecutor’s Office, which have become unusually strong and independent even for standards of Western democracies. As mentioned, at the root of this process is the Constitution of 1988, but it must be acknowledged that no government since then made significant efforts to stop it.

    Since the strenghtening of investigation forces and judiciary happened independently of the administrations, it’s unlikely that Haddad would be successful in reverting that process, even if he was determined to (which I believe he is not).

    For those reasons, I tend to think that Haddad represents a better option for the future of the anti-corruption movement in Brazil. More importantly, I tend to agree that, even if he didn’t, there are other things that should be taken into consideration, particularly in this case the commitment to democratic values, which Bolsonaro does not seem to share (Steven Levitsky published a number of interesting articles on this).

    • Thanks very much for this thoughtful, nuanced reply. I’m so glad that, despite my rather obvious ignorance of the details of the Brazilian situation, my post has provoked such helpful, careful analysis. I will continue to consider your points and those of others to figure out what I think — but of course what really matters is what Brazilian voters think!! We shall see.

    • very true, Guillherme. The PT, through all its corruption problems, managed to greatly strengthen the web of accountability institutions in Brazil. In fact, I’d argue that many of the exposés and effective judicialization of corruption cases involving the PT (including the Lava Jato and Mensalão have resulted from the reforms spearheaded by–parts of–the PT.

  3. Thank you for the two excellent posts. I would like to have the permission to translate them into Portuguese (assuming that no translation has been made?), would that be possible?

  4. Dear Matthew, everybody has the right of opinion and I will not comment your opinions on who would be best for Brazil, since that is for Brazilians to decide. However, I am compelled to give you additional information:
    1) PT, our Labor Party is far left when compared to Democrats in the US and even Socialists parties in Spain or Portugal; it is a mixture of former marxists (some of them involved in military actions in the past), the marxist wing of the church (“teologia da libertação”) and former union members (TAVARES, José. “PT: o caso do totalitarismo tardio”, 2000; if you read in Portuguese) – honestly, no North American has a clue about what that means, but is very left and maybe event totalitarian in their view of democracy (meaning democracy through the party only and lack of consensus with other ideologies and parties);
    2) PT has refused our democratic constitution from 1988, was against Real Plan (our monetary stabilization plan) and made an international campaign against Lava Jato, trying to convince foreign press and maybe naive people that our federal courts were chasing him politically (which in my view as a lawyer is completely false). As a result, I would dare to say that our institutions are ok in spite of PT, not because of PT.
    3) In PT program, there is a plan to “regulate” the media, reform the judiciary, among other stupidities that now that candidate tries to deny… They considered in their meetings that they left the door open to those institutions;
    4) PT was responsible for the major economic crisis of all our republican history (a decrease of 10% of our GDP in two years!). As former Clinton strategist used to say: “that is the economy!”
    That is why several Brazilians are running to the remaining alternative.
    Are they right or wrong? Who knows…

  5. Professor Stephenson, thank you for your post! I’m curious to know what your view is if Bolsonaro wins. What steps, if any, can Brazilians take as preventative measures to ensure that Brazil doesn’t follow down the path of countries like the Phillippines and Guatemala?

  6. Dear Professor Stephenson,
    I agree with the first two speakers who have said that PT has strengthened anti-corruption mechanisms, in particular by providing independence to the Public Prosecutors’ Office and the Federal Police and not interfering in the Supreme. It has also strengthened the role of the Office of the Comptroller General. Furthermore, I would like to point out that Dilma Rousseff was impeached not on corruption charges but on charges of fiscal responsibility which were also practiced by her predecessors and her successor, Temer. At no time the PT – though they did complain about the impeachment – acted unlawfully or outside democratic rules or stopped investigations going ahead, even of their own party members. Indeed they have complied with all decisions so far. Both Lula and Haddad continue to say that they hope the superior courts will find Lula not guilty, or at least they say that they still trust the Brazilian Judicial System. President Lula was accused of corruption which is controversial in Brazil and disputed not just by the Party and its supporters, but by a number of eminent jurists (legal academics and practitioners) inside and outside Brazil. This does NOT mean that the whole of Lava Jato has been discredited and the current candidate, Fernando Haddad, has, in fact, said the opposite. Again, although the PT has disputed accusations, the charge and the conviction of Lula, it has complied with all legal procedures and at no time has disregarded the law in any way. Finally, although the media has not been friendly to the PT, the party has never imposed any censorship. It is true that it wants to reform the law and bring in restrictions so that no single group can own the whole range of media types (newspapers, tv, satellite, internet, etc) as is the case now. They say that they want to break monopoly and diversify the sector. They also want to further restrict politicians from owning media groups and to bring in a new regulatory body that is more plural, formed of members outside the media, which would include civil society, finally they want to promote community radio and tv stations.

    If you have the time and interest, please check out the following book “Comments on a Notorious Verdict: the Trial of Lula” written by over 100 eminent legal experts. It is available for download for free, in English at Clacso (Latin American Social Sciences Council) the (Not all those who write are PT members or supporters).

    Furthermore, although PT members are the most notorious and well-known players in the Lava-Jato affair, it is not, in % terms, the party that is most involved in corruption cases, even in current times. That title falls to the PP (Progressive Party), with most members investigated in the Lava Jato (and one of the party’s that have gained (in numbers in the new Congress) from the ‘purge’ of Brazilian politics, as did all the so-called ‘centrao’ – a myriad of faceless parties that have been proliferating in Brazil as a way of accessing political funds and power bargaining).

    The situation in Brazil is very complex and, of course, I am not saying that PT was not involved in corruption, all parties were. What makes it even more difficult is that during the next parliament, Brazil will have 30 parties in Congress!! and the negotiations necessary to pass laws and gain majorities is in itself an incentive to corruption.

    I believe that corruption has to be combated by strengthening systems and laws. It is not the preserve of one party or a group of individuals and having faith in the ‘right individual’ is not the way to address it. I believe that ‘morality’ or `moralising`, which divides politicians and all people into intrinsically good or bad – sadly prominent in Brazilian politics – does not help in the fight against corruption. I hope we can go back into accepting a little more complexity when thinking about these issues.

    Finally, I find it difficult to believe that a politician (Bolsonaro) that runs a campaign based on fake news
    and who is unwilling to debate with other candidates in public will be the right man to be fighting corruption.

  7. Professor Stephenson, thank you so much for the useful thoughts and the attention dedicated to the Brazilian dilemma. Seconding all you have said, I would add another point: the majority of anticorruption investigations in Brazil are being carried out by the Federal Prosecutors Office, which is also responsible for controlling state activity in other key-areas: protection of minorities, environmental issues, public security, etc. Although prosecutors are usually split among units dedicated to specific fields, the possible increase of violations in other fields but corruption (especially those involving human rights) may crate the need to redirect efforts to answer to more evident and rampant conflicts in society. As corruption operates in the silence and society will probably dedicating its time to discuss those topics narrowly related to democracy and human rights, much of the attention, infrastructure and funds dedicated to anticorruption activities might be reconsidered for better serving society in the context of an authoritarian regime. After 4 years of Car Wash, it would be the time of thinking how to design a long-term strategy to prevent corruption, improving the transparency and accountability of our institutions. Not only authoritarian regimes are incompatible with this degree of transparency and accountability, but in such scenario maybe people won’t just have time and attention to dedicate to the deep debate anticorruption deserves.

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