Fighting Corruption in Brazil Requires More Than Tough Talk—Does the New President Have the Necessary Skills?

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.

11 thoughts on “Fighting Corruption in Brazil Requires More Than Tough Talk—Does the New President Have the Necessary Skills?

  1. Totally agree with your point — On point #3, it will be really interesting to see how some of the traditional politicians receive the anticrime package tomorrow in Congress and how open to negotiation the administration will be.

    • Hey, Jessie. Yes, it’s been interesting to watch. It seems like Min. Moro split the package to have the anticorruption aspects (mainly the criminalization of fraudulent accounting in campaigns) off the table for the moment. Maybe this will make easier to pass the bill and it would make sense because urban violence and political corruption although somehow related raise different issues. At the same time, politics is all about symbology and given the turmoil the administration is living, the message ends being that defeating corruption is not being taken as a priority (and maybe this is the truth).

  2. Pessimism is an accurate word to describe the perspective of Bolsonaro’s administration regarding integrity and anti-corruption. Among all the good arguments brought by the author, I would add that (1) Bolsonaro refused to engage in public debates with other candidates to discuss his platform during the election. This, per si, shows the lack of the capacity to be scrutinized in his ideas. (2) His reactions to the recent scandals involving his son, Flavio (elected senator), in the first month of administration was another demonstration that he does not know how to separate public and private issues: another skill required. (3) The decree imposing barriers to the transparency of information and (4) the attempted to restrict the generation of financial intelligent reports about relative’s politician suspicious activities from COAF (an agency responsible for raising red flags on money laundering) are actions that show a path to an opposite direction to the electoral speech. The truth is that Bolsonaro’s administration hasn’t demonstrated, yet, any concrete action toward integrity and anti-corruption agenda.

    • Thank you for sharing your thoughts. On the access to information, at least we had good news since that Lower House is overriding the Decree (although one could certainly challenge their motivations in doing so).

  3. Victor, one thought that comes to mind as I read your great post is the extent to which the post seems to be taking Bolsonaro’s campaign pledges to crackdown on corruption at face value. I don’t know much about Brazilian politics, but based on what I’ve read, it seems plausible to me that Bolsonaro’s promises to “clean up Brasilia” were merely a cynical political gambit deployed to attract votes—similar to Donald Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp”—that he had little to no intention of carrying out. Perhaps taking Bolsonaro seriously is the rhetorical device necessary to make the post work (assuming he’s serious about tackling corruption, he still doesn’t have the requisite political skills), but it does make me wonder whether you think Bolsonaro will actually try to make good on the anticorruption plank in his platform. Perhaps the appointment of Judge Moro suggests yes, and perhaps there’s still political value for Bolsonaro in owning the corruption issue… but I don’t know and I’d love to hear your (much better informed) thoughts. Thanks!

    • Jason, thanks for the thoughts and questions. Right after the elections, Bolsonaro’s son was involved in a money laundering/corruption investigation. Basically, there is a suspect that he embezzled part of his staffers salaries as a lawmaker in Rio de Janeiro. AML authorities suspect his driver was a hub to those payments and suspect transactions were also found in Bolsonaro’s son’s own account. Few days later, a newspaper reported, through the review of public documents, that Bolsonaro’s party used fake candidates to embezzle public campaign funds. All of this is pretty much “second class” corruption (as opposed to big corruption schemes in public procurements and billions in offshore accounts), which not means this is less serious. So, yes, one could doubt whether the administration will effectively be fighting agains corruption. What we cannot neglect is that there is still a large body of bureaucrats in charge of investigations and anticorruption acts that can act regardless the President’s will. Even though the lack of political coordination could result in undermining those watchdog’s efforts in controlling corruption. This is to say that either because they are not serious about corruption, or because they don’t have the necessary set of political skills, the administrations risks to put the anticorruption agenda in jeopardy.

      • Victor, thanks for the thoughtful response. That definitely does add some color as to whether Bolsonaro really has the bona fides to follow through on his anticorruption promises. My impression of the Brazilian civil service (and please feel free to correct me if I’m wrong) is that, at least at lower levels—say, for example, line prosecutors—it remains relatively unpoliticized and professional. If this is so, and given Bolsonaro’s potential personal exposure to corruption issues that you outline just above, perhaps the best we can hope for is that he stays out of the way and lets the professionals do their jobs. Even without the benefit of a president who is able and wants to coordinate, engage, and negotiate, that might be a small victory.

  4. I appreciate your distinction between “traditional politics” and corruption. It’s easy to rail against backroom deals and, in the process, confuse negotiation for corruption. Disruption may have it’s place, but ultimately day-to-day governance and progress require refined negotiation skills.

  5. Great post Victor. After reading, I’m curious as to how Bolsonaro, who spent the better part of the last 30 years in the Brazilian Federal Senate, managed to sell himself as an “outsider” when he ran for president. Has he always been an “outsider” in politics? If so, how did he manage to stay in office since 1991, and if not, how did he manage to do that without learning to negotiate with political elites? I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts.

    • Thank you, Alexander. Really good point! The President was reported to be a very inactive lawmaker throughout his decades in the Lower House, although always under the spotlights due to his political incorrectness and discourse about violence and law enforcement, which I suspect kept him being elected over and over. Even though he was often in the news (and more frequently after the popularization of social media), he was seen as belonging to the “low clergy” crew – the group of lawmakers that do not exercise any kind of leadership and usually just represent a limited group of interests in Congress (in his case this would be officials from the armed forces and law enforcement agents), joining coalitions according to the flow of interests. He certainly knows how Congress operate (or operated) by watching it happen. I am skeptical however about his ability to be in command.

  6. Victor, thank you for this interesting and informative post. Very well done.

    While your post presents convincing arguments as to why “tough talk” is simply not enough to fight corruption and what kinds of steps the new government should take to achieve meaningful results, I was wondering whether the new harsh rhetoric against corruption has in fact – in and of itself – led to some change, even if limited, in the field of anticorruption in Brazil. I usually tend to attribute a lot of power and influence to rhetoric and its ability to bring about a real change in both law on the books and law in action, as well as in people’s behavior, and therefore I am curious to learn whether the president’s anticorruption rhetoric has had any tangible effects.

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