The second round of Brazil’s presidential election—which pits incumbent right-wing President Bolsonaro against left-wing former President Lula—is a no-win situation for those who principally care about anticorruption. Both candidates have been embroiled in corruption scandals, and though both have deployed corruption allegations against their opponent, neither has articulated anything resembling a meaningful anticorruption agenda. For those voters whose top priority is increasing integrity and accountability within the Brazilian government, the question at the ballot box on October 30 will be: which candidate is the lesser of two evils?
Though painful, that question has a clear answer: Bolsonaro poses by far the greatest threat to anticorruption efforts in Brazil, and to the integrity of Brazilian democratic institutions as a whole. Lula is by no means an ideal candidate, and it is entirely understandable that many Brazilian voters are deeply concerned about the numerous corruption scandals involving his party, the PT (see here, here, and here). But Bolsonaro’s administration has been ripe with scandals as well (see here, here, here, and here). Ultimately, whatever Lula’s personal ethical failings may be, he is far more likely than Bolsonaro to preserve the institutional accountability mechanisms that are necessary to address corruption over the longer term.
To get an idea of why, it is useful to take a look at Bolsonaro and Lula’s track records:
- Although Bolsonaro’s first presidential campaign back in 2018 emphasized anticorruption rhetoric, his “decisions in government [have] systematically undermine[d] the anticorruption agenda.” Within a month in office, the Bolsonaro administration issued a decree that would have allowed a far greater number of public officials to classify official government information with the highest degree of confidentiality, thereby obstructing government transparency to a staggering extent. Although the decree failed in Congress, Bolsonaro nevertheless took advantage of existing legal loopholes to designate an unprecedented amount of information as classified. Such brazen disregard for transparency has dangerous long-term implications, as it makes corrupt acts harder to identify and prosecute.
- Rather than bolster the institutions fighting corruption, Bolsonaro has systematically chipped away at their power and legitimacy. For instance, in a dramatic break from precedent, Bolsonaro appointed Augusto Aras to be Chief General Prosecutor, despite him not being on the list of candidates drawn up by the country’s federal prosecutors. This move defied longstanding norms regarding limits on presidential interference with the prosecutor’s office. Once appointed, Aras wasted little time in shutting shut down numerous anticorruption taskforces (see here and here), most notably the Operation Car Wash Taskforce. Stunningly, Bolsonaro audaciously claimed that this taskforce ended “because there is no more corruption in the government.” Bolsonaro similarly dismantled the Financial Activities Board Control (known by its Portuguese acronym COAF) by relocating it several times and removing its head. Even more suspicious, such changes overlapped with the emergence of news that COAF was investigating allegations against Bolsonaro’s eldest son for money laundering. Bolsonaro has also lodged repeated attacks against the Federal Police and the Supreme Court. In short, Bolsonaro has been systematically weakening and politicizing the institutions that are supposed to be checks on corruption.
- By contrast, Lula, for all of his ethical shortcomings, was an institution builder. The irony of Lula and the PT is that they empowered and strengthened the institutions that ultimately led to their downfall. Indeed, under Lula, judges, prosecutors, and the police were given far more independence and greater budgets, allowing them to be more effective watchdogs on government accountability. “Before Lula took power, we were toothless,” said Luis Humberto, of the Federal Police union. “The [PT] increased our budget, upgraded our equipment and gave us more authority. It is ironic. They lost power because they did the right thing.” Whereas Lula strengthened the administrative institutions that came back to haunt him, Bolsonaro has undermined them at every turn.
- A nice illustration of the difference between Lula and Bolsonaro’s approaches to corruption as it pertains to institutions has to do with the way their administrations have each attempted to funnel money to legislators in return for favorable congressional votes. Under Lula, this became known as “mensalão,” the term used to describe the notorious 2005 vote-buying scandal wherein numerous politicians closely tied to the PT were arrested for bribing lawmakers with under-the-table stipends in return for their political support. In contrast, Bolsonaro’s administration passed a 2019 parliamentary budget amendment known as the “secret budget” because of its scant disclosure requirements regarding how the money is to be spent or allocated. Through this amendment, the Bolsonaro administration was able to channel at least 9 billion reais (roughly US$1.75 billion) to legislators in return for their support on critical votes. While some may say mensalão was worse because it was illegal, the secret budget far more nefariously renders bribery formal, legal, and routine. When corruption is institutionally formalized, not only does it become harder to eliminate, but corrupt practices become just a part of doing business. Yet despite sharp criticisms from international anticorruption organizations and warnings from Brazil’s own Federal Budget Office that the secret budget lacks “any constitutional support,” Bolsonaro has maintained the policy. That Bolsonaro and his administration have repeatedly ignored warnings, including from his own cabinet, regarding the shaky constitutional grounds on which this provision stands raises alarms as to his utter disregard for the democratic accountability systems that help fight corruption. (All that said, the Supreme Court plans to revisit the secret budget after the elections, and seems poised to deem it unconstitutional. But the point here has less to do with whether the secret budget will persist, but what this reveals about Bolsonaro’s approach to governance.)
Of course, past behavior doesn’t necessarily guarantee what Lula and Bolsonaro would do next term. There is the chance, for example, that a Lula presidency this time around will be far different from his prior administrations. For one, Lula is no longer the same candidate as before, and his former advisors have themselves either been mired in controversy or replaced by the attorneys who defended him during his corruption investigations. Perhaps Lula’s prior convictions will lead him to change his views regarding respect for institutional accountability mechanisms, and he might therefore work to undermine or politicize Brazil’s institutions. But there is a near-certainty that Bolsonaro will do so, given that is what he is already doing. Indeed, a more general process of democratic backsliding under Bolsonaro has already begun.
An additional factor also suggests that another Lula presidency would pose less of a corruption threat than a continued Bolsonaro administration: In the most recent congressional election, held on October 2, members of Bolsonaro’s party won the most seats in both chambers of Congress. With a highly partisan Congress in his pocket, Bolsonaro would have far more liberty to be even more brazen with his corruption and his assault on Brazilian institutions. In contrast, a President Lula would have to contend with a hostile Congress that would watch him like a hawk. The looming threat of impeachment would also serve as a powerful disincentive for Lula to give his enemies in Congress even the most threadbare excuse to initiate proceedings to remove him from office.
To be clear, this upcoming election isn’t just about corruption. As noted above, Bolsonaro also poses an existential threat to Brazilian democracy, through his unsubstantiated attacks on country’s electronic voting system, as well as his alliance with the Brazilian military (including his support for Brazil’s brutal military dictatorship). But these issues are also intertwined with corruption. After all, corruption thrives in circumstances of political disarray. And in the wake of a catastrophic pandemic, and with the country facing a record increase in social inequality and environmental collapse, the dangers of corruption have only been magnified and exacerbated under Bolsonaro. So while there isn’t an ideal choice in this election, there is clearly a better choice. Not only is Bolsonaro worse for corruption, but he is worse for the country. Lula is the lesser of two evils.