Much has already been written, on this blog and elsewhere, about the what the election of Jair Bolsonaro as President of Brazil means for the future of the anticorruption agenda in that country. (See, for example, here and here.) Bolsonaro’s appeal rested in part on the Brazilian electorate’s disgust with the entrenched corruption of the Brazilian political elite in all the major parties. Bolsonaro promised a rejection of “old politics,” positioning himself both as a “disruptive” figure and as someone who would and could “get tough” on corruption—a new sheriff in town, as it were, who would put the bad guys behind bars.
Yet fighting corruption is not just about “toughness” or making fiery speeches or enforcing laws (though strong enforcement is certainly necessary). In a country like Brazil—a complicated multiparty democracy desperately in need of significant institutional reform—an effective anticorruption agenda requires the President and his senior ministers not only, or even primarily, to be the merciless watchdogs cracking down on wrongdoing, but rather the country’s political leaders need to take the lead in articulating a coherent vision, mobilizing and coordinating with multiple stakeholders both in and out of government, and negotiating with other power centers in order to ensure not only the independence and cohesion of law enforcement efforts, but also to promote the necessary legal and institutional reforms. Promoting public integrity requires a broader set of skills, ones that have unfortunately become associated with “old politics” in a negative way: building coalitions, negotiating with different interest groups, and coordinating multiple stakeholders.
There are at least three sorts of coordination, engagement, and negotiation that Brazil’s new president must undertake if his purported commitment to fighting corruption is to yield results:
- Coordination among agencies. In Brazil, many different agencies are involved in enforcement actions. In addition to criminal enforcement (handled by the Federal Police and the Federal Prosecutors’ Office), the Inspector General’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Federal Court of Accounts can also bring charges and/or impose penalties in connection with corrupt practices. This overlap is even more problematic when companies want to negotiate so-called “leniency agreements,” in which the company voluntarily discloses wrongdoing and agrees to various remedial measures in exchange of reduction of penalties, given that these different agencies take different views on the appropriateness and validity of such agreements. Despite some progress, past administrations failed in their attempts to coordinate these agencies effectively, and the new administration will have to address this point in order to keep incentives for wrongdoers to voluntarily disclose corrupt practices.
- Engagement with civil society. Civil society and social movements have played a significant role in pushing anticorruption reform in Brazil. Popular protests across the country prompted the 2013 enactment of the Clean Company Act and the Organized Crimes Law, key legal tools for the Car Wash Operation. Prior to that, the 2010 Clean Records Act, which prohibits individuals convicted of corruption from running for office, was also the consequence of a widespread civil society initiative. These and other episodes indicate that the importance of civil society in shaping the anticorruption agenda in Brazil. Given this, Bolsonaro’s vague and troublesome promise to “end activism” does not bode well. Developing a long-term anticorruption strategy will demand the ability to hear civil society voices and seriously discuss their proposals. If the administration is genuinely interested in advancing anticorruption, his administration needs to be open to hearing a range of voices and proposals—including those of “leftists” and detractors—and to promote an open and transparent debate on how enhance public integrity.
- Negotiation with political elites. Brazil needs to reform its political and administrative institutions in order to reduce the incentives and opportunities for corruption. Many of the necessary reforms will require Congress to pass new laws. Yet Congress seems resistant to moving ahead with anticorruption reforms, even when civil society has mobilized around them. That means one of the new administration’s most daunting tasks will be to convince a Congress with a significant number of career politicians (approximately 50% in 2019) to promote anticorruption reforms that might threaten the interests of the political elite. Bolsonaro likes to position himself as a disruptive figure, one who does politics in a different way from the usual backroom deal-making. Yet however effective this may have been in winning the election, getting Congress to pass new laws by definition requires getting a majority of the Congress to go along, which would require the painstaking work of building a sufficient legislative coalition around a reform package.
Does Bolsonaro have the necessary skills and temperament to do what needs to be done to move the anticorruption agenda forward? Alas, there are reasons for pessimism. Despite 28 years in Congress, Bolsonaro never displayed much skill at building coalitions or moving legislation forward. And despite his tough talk, his actual proposals regarding anticorruption policy have remained quite vague. Of course, Bolsonaro will not be alone, and it’s possible he will assemble a team that will have the necessary management and political skills that he lacks. But that remains to be seen. Bolsonaro made waves—and stirred up controversy—when he nominated Judge Sergio Moro, a key figure in the fight against corruption in Brazil, as Minister of Justice (see here and here), but while Moro is a skilled judge and has been an important figure in Brazil’s recent anticorruption crackdown, he’s known for his judicial work, not his political or management acumen. So, the jury is very much still out.
The larger point is that despite the degree to which pervasive political corruption has discredited the existing political elite and the “old way” of doing politics, it would be a mistake to treat all aspects of traditional politics and administration—coordination, negotiation, compromise, coalition-building, and the like—as if they were inherently corrupt or ineffective. In fact, effective use of that more traditional political and managerial skill set may crucial to genuine progress on the anticorruption agenda.