Exactly one year ago, on October 28th, 2018, Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman and former army captain, was declared the winner of Brazil’s presidential election after receiving 55.13% of the valid votes. He defeated the center-left-wing Workers’ Party (PT) candidate Fernando Haddad, ending the PT’s streak of four consecutive presidential election victories that had begun in 2002.
Brazil’s corruption problem played a major role in the election and in Bolsonaro’s victory. The Car Wash Operation had not only uncovered widespread corruption scandals during the PT administrations, but that Operation also led to the prosecution and conviction of former President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, which rendered Lula ineligible to compete in the 2018 election. Moreover, Bolsonaro centered his campaign especially on a vigorous anticorruption discourse, promising to set a new standard of public integrity and to hold corrupt companies and politicians liable for their misconduct (see here and here). To be sure, Bolsonaro did not campaign exclusively on an anticorruption platform. He also positioned himself as the defender of more conservative social values and pledged to take a hardline approach to violent crime and drug trafficking. Yet his anticorruption rhetoric undoubtedly played a key role in his victory.
Even before the election, though, some commentators expressed skepticism that Bolsonaro would undertake genuine efforts to fight corruption and strengthen the institutions needed to promote integrity, and this skeptical view has been echoed by other commentators, both inside and outside of Brazil, during Bolsonaro’s first term (see, for example, here and here).
Now, one year since Bolsonaro’s electoral victory, is a suitable time to analyze the Bolsonaro Administration’s performance so far on anticorruption related issues. Have his substantive accomplishments in this area matched his tough rhetoric?
Before examining the Bolsonaro Administration’s anticorruption record, it’s important to clarify that an assessment of a government leader’s track record in advancing the anticorruption agenda is different from an inquiry into whether that politician is corrupt. These may be related, of course, but they’re not the same. A clean leader may nonetheless prove ineffective, or worse, in fighting corruption, while even a leader who engages in corrupt conduct might still achieve significant pro-integrity reforms. My concern here is assessing the Bolsonaro Administration’s policy record, not in the question whether he is personally corrupt, as there has not been any evidence thus far that President Bolsonaro is personally involved in acts of corruption as defined in the Brazilian Criminal Code.
Let’s start with the positive: The Bolsonaro Administration took some preliminary steps that were viewed favorably by the anticorruption community in Brazil, and helped bolster the popular impression that Bolsonaro would do more to promote government integrity than previous administration. First, Bolsonaro appointed federal judge Sergio Moro, the most renowned figure involved in Operation Car Wash, as Minister of Justice and Public Security (see here and here). He also promised that Moro would be a “super-minister,” who would have broad powers to decide any matters related to that ministry, without presidential direction or interference. Additionally, Bolsonaro fulfilled his campaign promise to appoint a cabinet composed mainly of ministers who do not have a partisan affiliation. This is significant because previous presidents had appointed partisan ministers as a way to build support for the administration in Congress, and this political strategy had been fiercely criticized as a mechanism that facilitates political corruption. Third, Bolsonaro introduced to Congress an extensive anti-crime legislation package, elaborated by Minister Moro, which proposed measures to address the problem of white-collar crimes impunity. Though many have criticized various aspects of the bill, this legislative package, and its anticorruption provisions in particular, appears to be an attempt to meet the public demand for legislative reforms to ensure swifter, surer, and harsher punishment for those engaged in corruption.
However, despite this promising start, the subsequent developments are not so encouraging, and indeed seem more consistent with the skeptics’ predictions that the Bolsonaro Administration’s anticorruption actions would not match its campaign rhetoric. Indeed, two key prosecutors that took part in Operation Car Wash have even alleged publicly that the Executive Branch was in fact taking steps against the investigations (see here and here, in Portuguese). The following list of questionable decisions illustrates these concerns:
- First, Bolsonaro’s government has resisted transparency in the public administration. A presidential decree signed by the Vice President changed the regulation of the Access to Information Law, expanding the number of public officials who could classify official information with the highest degree of confidentiality. Consequently, the Chamber of Deputies had to initiate the approval of a legislative decree to suspend that presidential decree, which led the executive branch later to reconsider the measure. The Bolsonaro Administration has also followed its predecessors’ practice of imposing secrecy on the president’s travel expenses abroad, despite journalist’s official demands to access this data.
- Second, the Bolsonaro Administration restructured the Financial Activities Board Control (known by its acronym in Portuguese COAF), a financial intelligence unit responsible for investigating suspicious activities concerning money laundering. COAF was responsible for many politically sensitive investigations, not only concerning Operation Car Wash, but also regarding, for example, the suspicious financial operations of many assessors of representatives and former Rio de Janeiro State legislative assembly representatives, which included Bolsonaro’s elder son. One of the most criticized changes is the fact that COAF no longer has to be composed only of stable career civil servants, thus allowing political nominations.
- Third, there have been presidential attempts to directly interfere in the Federal Police, a department that was fundamental for the success of Car Wash investigations and hierarchically linked to Sergio Moro’s Ministry, in order to announce substitutions of regional chiefs of the entity. Such interference in the Federal Police not only created internal embarrassment in that investigative bureau, which has traditionally enjoyed a certain degree of autonomy, but also signaled that Moro’s “super-minister” powers were in fact very limited.
- Fourth, President Bolsonaro broke with longstanding practice by appointing a Prosecutor General who was not on the list of three candidates drawn up by the country’s federal prosecutors. (The Prosecutor General is the head of the Federal Public Prosecutor’s Office, is personally responsible for representing the Prosecutor’s Office before the Supreme Court, and is the only officer who can criminally prosecute the president and his ministers.) While not illegal or unconstitutional—under the Brazilian Constitution, the President is free to appoint any federal prosecutor over age 35 as Prosecutor General, so long as the appointment is confirmed by the Senate—there had been a practice since 2001 that the Federal Prosecutors’ National Association would hold an internal election and submit to the President a shortlist composed with the three names that received the most votes, and the President would choose one of these three. The purpose of this practice is to reduce the risk of political influence over the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which is an independent body and is supposed to be apolitical. Yet Bolsonaro disregarded the shortlist and opted instead to appoint a Prosecutor General who he believed would be more ideologically aligned with his government. This was the first time since 2003 that a President had ignored the prosecutors’ suggestion by not appointing a name from the shortlist.
Brazil’s recent anticorruption achievements were all obtained through the collaboration of stable and permanent public officials, who received sufficient resources and independence in their entities to perform their tasks properly. It’s hard to reconcile Bolsonaro’s promise to usher in new standards of public integrity in Brazil with the fact that he appears to be directly interfering with the most relevant public administration control bodies. If he is serious about his pledge to fight corruption, he should endow such bodies with greater autonomy and independence, even (indeed, especially) when they are investigating his own administration.
With three years left for Bolsonaro Administration, there is still time for the president to prove that his tough anticorruption talk wasn’t just campaign rhetoric. However, if Bolsonaro Administration fails to make a clear commitment to good public governance practices and to strengthening oversight bodies, it risks becoming another example of government that uses anticorruption discourse for electoral purposes but never delivers all the promised results.