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.