Brazil’s Presidential Election: No Matter the Outcome, Corruption Wins (and Everyone Loses)

On October 2, the first round of Brazil’s presidential election failed to produce a single winner, and the two front-runners—Jair Bolsonaro, the far-right incumbent, and Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), the former president and leader of the Workers Party (PT)—will face each other in the second round on October 30.

For many, particularly those in the anticorruption community, the fact that Brazil’s next president will be either Lula or Bolsonaro is a source of despair and deep concern. One only needs to take a cursory look at the corruption scandals that have mired both candidates to understand why:

  • LULA: To his most ardent critics, Lula is a criminal mastermind who stole billions from Brazil; to his most fervent supporters, he is a savior whose only crime is stealing their hearts. Whatever the case, Lula’s candidacy represents a stunning comeback for a man whose party stood at the center of the largest corruption scandal in the region’s history. Lula himself spent nineteen months in prison on corruption charges pertaining to this scandal, and his conviction was only annulled on procedural grounds related to jurisdiction. It is true that the credibility of the anticorruption operation that led to Lula’s arrest and conviction—the so-called Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash)— has been undermined by evidence of judicial and prosecutorial bias. However, even if one believes that the allegations specifically against Lula were hazy at best and politically motivated at worst, “those against his party were well-founded and damning.” Further, Operation Car Wash was not even the only major corruption scandal to have plagued Lula and his party. The 2005 vote-buying scandal, known as “mensalão” (which roughly translates to “big monthly stipend”) involved dozens of politicians with links to Lula and the PT, including Lula’s chief of staff, who bribed Brazilian lawmakers to support PT initiatives in Congress. To many in Brazil, then, Lula’s legacy is intrinsically tied to two of the largest corruption scandals in the nation’s history. Even if he is not as guilty as initially presumed, a Lula victory would nevertheless represent a harsh rejection of the systemic changes that Operation Car Wash once made seem possible.
  • BOLSONARO: Known as the “Trump of the Tropics,” this firebrand is no stranger to controversy, and in fact seems to revel in his pot-stirring (see, for instance, here, here, here, and here). Even so, during his presidential campaign back in 2018, Bolsonaro was able to successfully take advantage of the PT’s reputation for corruption—and the fact that Lula was ineligible to run because he was in prison—by positioning himself as the anticorruption candidate, the person who could clean up Brazil’s dirty politics. This time around, Bolsonaro is drawing on the same rhetoric, denouncing Lula as an “ex-convict” who oversaw the “most corrupt [government] in the history of Brazil.” But while Bolsonaro was able to successfully position himself in 2018 as a political outsider who would put an end to Brazil’s systemic corruption, his first term as president has been riddled with corruption scandals and political inquiries that have undermined his credibility. Indeed, 69% of Brazilians believe there is corruption in Bolsonaro’s government, and numerous allegations (as well as over 100 impeachment requests) have been lodged against Bolsonaro and his family. Among the most high-profile corruption allegations involving Bolsonaro’s family concern his eldest son, Flávio (himself a senator). Less than a month after Bolsonaro became president, Brazil’s Council for Financial Activities Control was already investigating suspicious transactions involving Flávio’s former driver. Prosecutors eventually filed official charges against Flávio for his alleged involvement in a corruption scheme known as “rachadinha,” in which he and other politicians siphoned off money meant for public sector salaries, either by keeping fake employees on their payroll or by forcing their employees to kickback portions of their salaries in order to keep their jobs. Flávio was suspected of helping create twelve fake jobs and laundering the money. While these personal scandals involving Bolsonaro’s family are sordid, other corruption allegations against the Bolsonaro administration involve much more consequential misconduct. For example, in 2021, the Parliamentary Inquiry Committee opened an investigation into potential irregularities regarding a $300 million contract to purchase 20 million doses of the Indian-made Covaxin vaccines, at 1,000% above the initial quoted price. The final report indicated that President Bolsonaro had been warned about such irregularities and still failed to inform the Federal Police. In light of all these allegations, it would therefore be disingenuous to say that Bolsonaro is the same “anticorruption” candidate that he was (or at least tried to seem) back in 2018.

In a country where corruption remains among one of the top concerns for voters, it is deeply troubling that the two remaining candidates both have such problematic reputations for corruption. Given that Brazil has a multiparty system, there were eleven presidential candidates on the ballot for the first round of votes on October 2. And yet, even in a political system ostensibly designed to encourage multiplicity, the other nine candidates who vied for the presidency never really stood a chance. In fact, after the first round of voting, they together received less than 9% of the total vote. This is a stunning result given that, only a year earlier, polls indicated that the most popular candidate was “anyone but Lula or Bolsonaro.”

Moreover, while corruption has been frequently brought up by both candidates, such discussions have almost entirely consisted of verbal mudslinging in the form of accusations and attacks. Neither Bolsonaro nor Lula has articulated a detailed or even concrete anticorruption agenda in their platforms. There has been virtually no discussion of anticorruption from a public policy perspective. Rather, in this election cycle, at least at the presidential level, corruption has become little more than a shallow rhetorical weapon wielded to undermine opponents and deflect from personal accountability.

For those in the anticorruption community, both inside and outside of Brazil, this is deeply depressing. As recently as five years ago, it appeared that Brazil was entering a new period of serious anticorruption reform. Today, the future looks bleak. In addition to the obvious concern that corruption under either a Lula or Bolsonaro administration will run even more rampant, it is also troubling that no candidate in Brazil’s multiparty political system was able to emerge as a feasible alternative, despite voters’ ostensible concern with corruption and the obvious corruption-related baggage of both Lula and Bolsonaro. This sad fact demonstrates the extent to which Brazilian politics has devolved into a clash between cults of personality, where political leaders are either worshipped as heroes or demonized as villains. With that degree of intense polarization and cult-like followings of political leaders, neither the truth nor transparency matters, and genuine accountability is impossible.

8 thoughts on “Brazil’s Presidential Election: No Matter the Outcome, Corruption Wins (and Everyone Loses)

  1. This is an insightful (and deeply depressing) post. It seems strange that the topic of corruption is at once a major concern for voters and, by the looks of it, very little concern at all. I feel like there may be a couple explanations for this.

    First, if both major candidates are relentlessly talking about this topic, then eventually the campaign trail is so saturated with accusations that it becomes difficult for voters to properly evaluate their importance—in other words, accusations about corruption have become so commonplace that they no longer carry much weight. Corruption is now just another issue among many.

    Second, it could be that accusations about *the other side* being corrupt still carry quite a bit of weight, but the cult-like status of both figures means that the supporters of each just write off those accusations against their own candidate. Sure, the other side is definitely corrupt, but not *my* candidate.

    I’m not sure which would be less troubling. And maybe it’s a combination of both. Do you have any thoughts on whether either of these explanations is plausible? Or thoughts about other explanations for this strange phenomenon?

  2. I would like to congratulate Victoria for her balanced and inspiring exposition on a topic that has aroused irrational passions in Brazil. About a year ago I wrote in this blog about what would be minimally necessary, by the next president, to get Brazil´s Anticorruption Agenda back on track. Unfortunately, the future of this agenda, as well exposed by Victoria’s post, looks really bleak.

  3. Logan, I think you hit the nail on the head! I would only add that, with the point on the saturation of corruption, there is also a normalization aspect, particularly in a country that has been at the center of such high-profile scandals, there is a sense that “all politicians are corrupt” so it doesn’t really matter. So it’s not so much that corruption is just another issue, it’s just that corruption is so commonplace, voters feel all politicians are the same. The converse to that, which you also touch upon, is the extreme polarization we have seen in recent years, combined with the “cult-like status” of both figures you mentioned. Not only does that result in people on either extreme camp refusing to see *their* candidate as corrupt, but it also results in people being so revolted by the other side for ideological reasons, that corruption becomes an issue that “we can’t talk about right now” because there are more important things on the line.

    • Thank you for this insightful coverage, Victoria. I think Logan makes a very interesting point about the accusations of corruption being so commonplace that they don’t carry the same weight anymore. I wonder whether this is something the anticorruption community should be worried about in the larger scheme of things; not only with regard to the saturation of corruption but whether the word “corruption” has been so heavily distorted and manipulated in political debate that it has started to lose its meaning in some kind of semantic satiation?

  4. Thank you, Victoria, for your insight into this year’s election in Brazil. You did such a wonderful job outlining the challenge of accountability during polarization and when faced with binary choices. I would be so interested on your thoughts about what it means when citizens say corruption is a key issue for them, but that is not reflected in their voting patterns. Is that just the result of a high-corruption environment? Is a key issue, but secondary to other concerns? I find the question to be a troubling one beyond the scope of this particular election, given how many of the elected officials to Brazil’s Congress (in less binary and high-profile races) have also been embroiled in corruption scandals in the past.

    • Thanks Lica! You raise an excellent question, and I’m not sure if I have the right answer. My hunch is that your point on the high-corruption environment has a lot to do with it. First, with corruption so rampant, voting patterns (even in less binary races) are simply more likely to result in victories for corrupt politicians, simply because those are the only choices on the ballot. Second, even if a politician has a clean track record on the campaign trail, the fact the corruption is so deeply embedded in the political arena means that, once elected and inside the political machine, this “clean politician” will turn to corruption because that’s “just part of politics.”

  5. Thank you for such an informative post that clearly articulates the stunning corruption in mainstream politics and the personalities at play here, which is really helpful to international audiences that are beginning to grasp the full implications of this election. I’m curious, is there anything in this election or in anticorruption responses to this election that gives you (even a glimmer of) hope that anticorruption efforts will eventually get back on track? Perhaps there are anticorruption efforts at the local level that may be drowned out by the national politics (much like in the United States) but are actually very effective and give some hope for the near future?

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