When it Comes to Corruption, Lula is Toxic, but Bolsonaro is Lethal

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.

12 thoughts on “When it Comes to Corruption, Lula is Toxic, but Bolsonaro is Lethal

  1. This is an excellent summary of a tough issue. Your post raises one especially important point: that there are multiple ways to think about whether a presidential candidate is “bad for” anticorruption efforts. First, are they themselves susceptible to corruption? Second, are their parties susceptible to corruption? Third, are they (or their parties) a hinderance to anticorruption enforcement or reform?

    The first two are certainly bad, but the third feels far more insidious. It seems like voters might attach less weight to it, especially in subsequent elections. After all, that sort of undermining behavior is far less embarrassing for politicians than being caught in a scandal is. I wonder if you think this is true in the Brazilian context.

    And as far as the difference between a leader and their party’s tendency for corruption, it’s an interesting question to what extent one person (or leader) is responsible for the misconduct of their fellow party members. Here, this difference seems less pronounced, but perhaps it could be more so in a different context.

    • Thanks for your insightful comment, Micah! Regarding your first point, you are completely right. When it comes to politicians, corruption discourse tends to be limited to the scandals. Of course, a politician’s personal connections with corruption is important, as it is indicative of their commitments to ethics and good governance. However, focusing solely on corruption in this way can have insidious consequences. First, when corruption is rampant, as it is in Brazil, it may create a false equivalency of “all politicians are just as bad.” Further, it enables the devolution of corruption discourse in the political sphere into verbal mudslinging. Regarding your second point, that’s much harder to untangle. Personally, I think that if a tree keeps producing bad apples, maybe the roots are rotting.

  2. What a great analysis not only of the past behavior of both candidates, but of what the Congressional elections mean for their future behavior. It is interesting to me that with a Congress against him, Lula might be constrained from passing potential substantive anti-corruption reforms, but that given he will likely have little incentive to want such reforms in the first place, an opposition Congress could be a powerful political check to corruption. I imagine also that regardless of who wins the secret budget will likely be very difficult to dismantle now that it is in place.

    • That’s a great point, Lica! Regarding the secret budget, I am not sure how difficult dismantling it will be, either. On the one hand, the Supreme Court only temporarily allowed it, and it seems poised to shut it down. However, should Bolsonaro be reelected, there is a chance he will pack the court with justices more favorable to his agenda. So, perhaps under a Bolsonaro reelection, the secret budget is more likely to stay.

  3. A disappointing situation. The conclusion from this and some other examples appears to be that accountability of political figures is an almost hopeless cause in societies where corruption is widespread. Instead of reform, it usually ends up in a nefarious direction where accountability is used as a weapon to get rid of opponents. And political polarization makes this worse as supporters of both sides ignore the corruption on their side while cheering cases against those they oppose. So it doesn’t provide a conducive environment where genuine rule of law based accountability can thrive and over time genuinely reduce the level of corruption. If anything, such polarization creates a serious risk for democratic backsliding. Corruption cases against opponents can thus really undermine democracy instead of helping. So, what if the conclusion really is that focusing on punitive accountability of political figures often does more harm than good? I hope this isn’t the case and there are good reasons for feeling more optimistic. May be there are conditions in which accountability can actually work and not contribute to polarization abd democratic backsliding. But if so, what are those conditions and had such a thing played out anywhere? All in all, I think it’s very important that scholars on corruption take into account the issue of polarization and democratic backsliding as they try to find answers to such questions.

  4. As an American currently living in Brazil (and married to a Brazilian), I find your post interesting but poorly informed. These arguments may sound convincing to outside audiences who have heard repeated stories of Bolsonaro’s badness since before he was elected, but there’s a deeper story to be told here that requires going beyond the echo chamber of outside-looking-in Western media.

    You do not address in your article several actions taken by the Bolsonaro administration that have won public support – particularly in the South and Southeast, where majorities or pluralities supported Bolsonaro in the first round of the presidential election. The substance of these successes is poorly understood and rarely – if ever – mentioned by Western media about the controversy-spewing former military captain who currently presides over Brasil.

    To start, during the Jair Bolsonaro’s administration the power of South America’s most powerful gang boss, Marcola, was severely reduced the active. Marcola and the PCC acted with impunity for the duration of the former union boss’s tenure, including an almost total shut-down of Sao Paulo in 2006 that left over 140 dead: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2006_S%C3%A3o_Paulo_violence_outbreak. To quote Marcola in 2014, “It is you who are afraid of dying, not me. As a matter of fact, here in jail you cannot come in and kill me…but I can order to kill you out there.”

    This long-standing situation ended in 2018, shortly after Jair Bolsonaro was put into office, when the cell and radio lines used by Marcola and his top operatives to run PCC operations from prison were cut and all were moved to high-security prisons with no access to either radio or cellular phones: https://www.bbc.com/portuguese/brasil-47300472

    It is of little wonder then, that police intercepted audio of Marcola where he noted his clear preference for Lula over Bolsonaro in this election. This audio, while verified, was then censured by the Supreme Electoral Court, which is headed by a long-standing Lula supporter who had a hand in overturning Lula’s corruption charges: https://br.noticias.yahoo.com/publicacoes-falsas-que-apontam-voto-de-marcola-em-lula-terao-que-ser-excluidas-155020876.html

    Other channels that have been censured by the pro-Lula Supreme Electoral Court include competent, non-partisan think tanks like Brasil Paralelo and news outlets like Jovem Pan, because they published information and videos that criticized the Lula administration, and this has been met by condemnation from companies like CNN: https://www.cnnbrasil.com.br/politica/abert-e-cnn-repudiam-qualquer-tipo-de-censura-a-liberdade-de-imprensa/

    Meanwhile, the long-standing dominance of Brazil’s Globo TV, which has commanded over 90% of audience viewership in Brazil, has been seriously challenged by Jair Bolsonaro’s decision to cut federal support for the channel by over 80%: https://www.terra.com.br/diversao/tv/quanto-bolsonaro-tirou-de-verba-oficial-da-globo-em-3-anos,218880612860b27037b4f3ea3000299cg0pk15xu.html

    As a result, in 2021 it was announced that 7 different stations would carry Brazilian futebol matches, for the first time in modern Brasilian history: https://www.poder360.com.br/midia/com-fim-do-monopolio-da-globo-7-canais-transmitirao-o-futebol-em-2022/

    And while Lula was given full credit for the Bolsa Familia program for poor mothers across the country, despite the fact that the main elements of the program was started under Lula’s predecessor in office Fernando Henrique Cardoso, it was Bolsonaro that doubled the amounts that mothers receive to a much more meaningful 400 reais (roughly 80 USD) in late 2021: https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/brazils-lower-house-approves-replacement-brazils-famed-bolsa-familia-2021-11-25/

    The combined effect of these crime-fighting, market liberalising, and poverty-limiting decisions by the Bolsonaro regime are under-appreciated by Western media and leaders. Furthermore, the corruption inherent in the censuring of competent sources of information that cast Lula and the PT in a negative light have been ignored by your article and other commentators. And while corruption is certainly a worry for those supporting either candidate, the depth and illegality of the PT’s various corruption schemes is unrivaled since the adoption of the current Brazilian constitution. A preference by nearly 45% of the population (in the first round) for a fiery captain with questionable antics, who nonetheless gets work done that benefits the lives of citizens on the ground, is understandable, given that his opponent is a former prison inmate for confirmed corruption and a PT faction has greater loyalty to its fellow members than to Brazilian institutions or the law.

    • Hi,

      I am a Brazilian lawyer living in the USA. Just to let you know: (i) Marcola was transferred to a high security prison because the prosecutors from the State of Sao Paulo requested it. It has nothing to do with Bolsonaro: ihttps://noticias.uol.com.br/colunas/josmar-jozino/2022/10/18/transferencia-marcola-promotor-lincoln-gakiya-mp-sp.amp.htm
      (ii) Bolsonaro originally wanted much less to be given to the poor: https://www.reuters.com/article/politica-bolsonaro-trezentosreais-idLTAKBN25S542. The amount was just increase in his pursuit to try to be reelected and you also fail to bear in mind that Brazil has no money to keep paying a high Auxilio Brasil after the election

      (iii) Bolsonaro always deemed Bolsa Familia as “buying votes”. Curious that Bolsonaro changed his mind now, right? https://congressoemfoco.uol.com.br/amp/area/governo/bolsa-farelo-e-voto-de-cabresto-as-contradicoes-de-bolsonaro-sobre-o-bolsa-familia/

      (iv) You have no idea on how Jovem Pan and Brasil Paralelo are partisans in favor of Bolsonaro. To straight things out: under our electoral laws, companies and people in general cannot lie during elections. People have to play a fair election game. It so happens that Brasil Paralelo and Jovem Pan kept on citing Lula as if he was a gang member, forgetting to mention all legal actions against him have been annulled. Brazil has no broad libertarian First Amendment as you Americans have during elections, and that is in place to protect democracy (we have endured 20 years of it with the support of the USA and praise of Bolsonaro)

      • It is a pity to realize that Brazil imported from the USA the disinformation tactics covered by a serious journalistic appearance of several vehicles mentioned (Brasil Paralelo, Jovem Pan,…). It is a problem that progressive, plural, and democratic societies worldwide urgently need to address. (https://demtech. oii.ox.ac.uk/research/posts/challenging-truth-and-trust-a-global-inventory-of-organized-social-media-manipulation/).
        Two fundamental human rights essential for fighting against corruption are being used in opposition. One is the right to transparency, which presupposes that information is complete and based on the search for the truth and not on its strategic use to achieve or maintain political and economic power. The other is the right to freedom of expression.
        What urgently needs to be tackled is the role and business model of digital platforms that exploit the polarization fueled by lies or half-truths on a planetary scale, which attract advertisers looking for a quick and maximized return. (https://demtech.oii.ox.ac.uk/research/posts/challenging-truth-and-trust-a-global-inventory-of-organized-social-media-manipulation) The traditional media that are more committed to the professional training of journalists and the curation of information are unable to compete with this model and maintain advertisers’ revenues and have to charge for access. A poor country like Brazil is condemned to polarization and interest group manipulation.
        The point about organized crime in Brazil and its influence on the political world is complex, as is the case of militias in Rio de Janeiro (https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/oct/18/brazil -militias-paramilitary-far-right-bolsonaro).
        The stimulus given by the government of President Jair Bolsonaro to illegal mining in the Amazon, through the dismantling of the bodies that control regular exploration and protect indigenous reserves, seems contradictory because the PCC has links to illegal gold mining. (https://www.reuters.com/markets/commodities/us-treasury-eyes-brazil-drug-gang-ties-illegal-amazon-gold-mines-2022-08-17/).

  5. Excellent analysis! I would like only to reinforce that the legal capture of the purchase of the parliamentary base by the “secret budget” has far worse consequences. The next government, whatever it may be, will be hostage and have to maintain and expand this instrument to achieve a minimum of governability. This institutionalized practice removes from the planning of public policies the ability to optimize the allocation of scarce resources and transfers decisions to the political class in vast and pulverized amounts, with strictly electoral objectives. In the coming years, there will be a concentration of spending with this “secret budget” in the areas of health, education, and social assistance, which will be the instruments for the diversion of public resources. I hope the Supreme Court deems the “secret budget” unconstitutional. However, if Bolsonaro manages to get reelected, he will undoubtedly have parliamentary support to change the composition of the Supreme Court and could reverse the decision.
    Another point that deserves a reflection on the Brazilian case is the contribution of anti-corruption initiatives to reach this situation. How were they fed and used in such a way that culminated in a scenario of setbacks and greater fragility of institutions, capture by political groups, and threats to democracy? Fighting corruption cannot be an end in itself.

  6. Thank you for another excellent analysis of the situation in Brazil. Reading through this post, I couldn’t help but wonder if what we’re seeing this election cycle is indicative of what is to come. If Lula does win, then presumably Bolsonaro isn’t going away. And so this finger-pointing over which figure is more corrupt may, unfortunately, continue for some time.

    Which makes me wonder which path Lula would take should he win and then face Bolsonaro again. He could either (1) commit strongly to anticorruption efforts and use any progress as a selling point during a later election; or (2) downplay corruption in Brazil (similar to Bolsonaro’s comments about there being “no more corruption in the government”) in order to distance himself from the issue of corruption. It would seem to me that the latter is obviously worse, but there is certainly an incentive for him to take this path.

  7. Good debate and post. However, any Brazilian under 50 should imvest in another party and character. It is unadmissible to have such a choice. Corruption machines are hard to disentangle, see South Korea, a great chiever, once they elected the wrong president the vicious circle restarted and they needed an impeachment (followed, again by pardons amd all the nonsense). So there is no real choice today and the leader of the opposition to whowever wins should not be the loser of today. . Young Brazilians should associate, form new parties and show an alternative exists to old corrupt ones. Turn the back to all these. Or all the Lava Jato, which remains great for most part, would have been for nothing.

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