Brazilian Anticorruption Experts Weigh in on the Presidential Election

The upcoming presidential election in Brazil, which pits right-wing incumbent Jair Bolsonaro against former President Lula–leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party (PT)–puts voters who care primarily about government integrity in a tough spot. Some of the leading figures in Brazil’s so-called “Car Wash” anticorruption operation have publicly embraced President Bolsonaro, pointing (explicitly or implicitly) to the corruption scandals under Lula and the PT. Others, including Victoria on this blog, have argued that between the two, Bolsonaro would be worse for the fight against corruption than would Lula.

Recently, a group of 59 Brazilian scholars who research and teach on anticorruption and related topics weighed in on this issue with an open letter, originally published in Portuguese. This is an important contribution to the discussion, of interest not only to Brazilians but to the international community that cares about this issue. With the permission of the letter’s organizers, their English translation of the letter is below, with the list of signatories:

You cannot fight corruption without democracy

In a few days, Brazilians will go back to the polls to vote for president and, once again, corruption takes center stage in the public debate. In light of the damaging incidents uncovered in the past, several of which were exposed by Operation Carwash, there are many who are reluctant to trust former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva with their vote, fearing that his victory would represent a backward step in the fight against corruption.

We are researchers and educators who have dedicated our academic and professional careers to studying corruption, ethics, integrity and transparency. We have conducted our studies and research in Brazil and in countries around the world. We have backgrounds in various fields of knowledge such as law, economics, management, history, political science, and several others. What we all have in common is the fact that we produce knowledge that helps understand the serious social issue that is corruption.

Taking into account just how large of a role the study of corruption plays in our lives, we understand that for many it might come as a shock to know that, on October 30, we will be voting for Lula. Although we have all made the same decision, each of us has taken a different path before reaching it. However, we are united in the certainty that there is no contradiction whatsoever between our vote and our commitment to the anticorruption agenda. On the contrary, they both reflect the same conviction: you cannot fight corruption without democracy.

In recent decades, successive investigations have uncovered extensive evidence on the extensive collusion between certain business and political leaders to the detriment of the public interest, which has led many Brazilians to deeply distrust the country’s political system. However, it is necessary to acknowledge that these vicious practices only came to light thanks to certain institutional and regulatory advancements that have developed since the advent of the 1988 Brazilian Constitution, many of which were designed, implemented, and improved under intense pressure from – and interaction with – the opposition, organized civil society, the professional media, and the international community – something that can only happen in a democracy.

Thus, it is impossible to separate this strengthening of anticorruption efforts from the democratic gains achieved over the past decades. Though it may not have played out in an entirely unswerving manner, this strengthening process can be observed in each of Brazil’s federal administrations since re-democratization up to the launch of Operation Carwash – including that of the Workers’ Party, to which Lula belongs, during which the country made significant strides toward developing a legal and institutional framework to combat corruption.

This process has been interrupted by the election of Jair Bolsonaro in 2018. Although he was elected with promises of taking the country to a new level of integrity and rejecting these much-reviled practices found in Brazilian politics, the following four years were marred by successive corruption scandals, alliances with the most deeply clientelist sectors of Brazil’s political landscape, political interference in key investigation organs, the dismantling of the nation’s legal and institutional corruption-fighting apparatus, and the undermining of public transparency and social oversight over the government’s affairs.

All these setbacks, which have been widely documented in academic publications, civil society statements, and even by international organizations, point to the same unavoidable conclusion: Bolsonaro’s alleged commitment to the fight against corruption is merely rhetorical. The anticorruption cause only interests him as far as it can be used as a cudgel to get the Brazilian people to vote against his rivals.

Even more serious than Bolsonaro’s lack of commitment to the anticorruption agenda is his lack of commitment to democratic values and the rule of law. The fight against corruption is not an end in itself. Above all, what inspires this fight is the recognition that corruption is one of the greatest barriers to the State’s capacity to address various existing inequalities and serve its citizens adequately, thus ensuring fundamental rights for all. The fight against corruption is, therefore, a means to a greater end, that of guaranteeing the rights of the people. It follows, then, that the anticorruption agenda is not advanced at the expense of democratic institutions and the rule of law, but rather must be steered by them.

Throughout his political career and his time as President, Bolsonaro has shown time and time again that he does not share the democratic values that guide the 1988 Constitution. From his declared admiration for Brazil’s military dictatorship and its torturers through his several attempts to sow distrust in the integrity of the country’s electoral process, including his constant attacks on the constituted powers, it has become clear that Bolsonaro represents a real and imminent threat to Brazilian democracy. This is why so many of Lula’s historical rivals have set aside their differences and rallied around his presidential bid – because he represents the only current alternative to a project that seeks to dismantle our republic.

Voting for a certain candidate does not mean endorsing their policies: at times, all we are given is the choice of which administration to oppose. Many of us, signed below, will certainly choose to oppose the winning candidate, whether we voted for them or not. However, when faced with the choice of being in the opposition to a democratic government or an authoritarian one, we will always opt for the democratic government.

Therefore, voting for Lula does not, in any way, dim or extinguish the critical faculties that each citizen must cultivate in a democracy as pluralistic as Brazil’s; on the contrary, it is precisely these critical faculties that have led us to acknowledge the exceptional nature of the choice now presented to the Brazilian people.

To vote for Lula is to express the conviction that the fight against corruption will not advance by means of bravado or political catchphrases; it means expressing the conviction that the fight against corruption must not come at the expense of the democratic order; on the contrary, it is the conviction that progress in this area can only be sustainable when it is accompanied by the strengthening of democratic values and institutions; in short, it is the conviction that you cannot fight corruption without democracy.


Amon Barros

André Assumpção

Andreia Reis do Carmo

Armando Castro

Bárbara Alencar Ferreira Lessa

Beatriz Silva da Costa

Bruno Pinheiro Wanderley Reis

Bruno Wilhelm Speck

Caio César de Medeiros Costa

Caio Coelho

Camila Pagani

Cecília Choeri

Conrado Hubner Mendes

Eduardo Saad Diniz

Fabiano Engelmann

Fabio de Sa e Silva

Fernanda Odilla

Fernando Filgueiras

Frederico Lustosa da Costa

Graziela Dias Teixeira

Guilherme France

Guilherme Siqueira de Carvalho

Isabel Cristina Veloso de Oliveira

Jamile Camargos de Oliveira

João Mendes Rocha Neto

José Álvaro Moisés

José Sérgio da Silva Cristóvam

Juliane Sant’Ana Bento

Leonardo Avritzer

Letícia Meniconi Barbabela

Ligia Mori Madeira

Luciano Da Ros

Luiz Fernando Vasconcellos de Miranda

Manoel Galdino

Manoel Gehrke

Marco Antonio Carvalho Teixeira

Marcos Fernandes Gonçalves da Silva

Maria Dominguez

Maria Eugênia Trombini

Mariana Carvalho

Mariana Mota Prado

Marta Rodriguez de Assis Machado

Michael Freitas Mohallem

Miguel Reale Júnior

Nara Pavão

Paula Chies Schommer

Paulo Roberto Neves Costa

Rafael Cláudio Simões

Ranulfo Paranhos

Raquel de Mattos Pimenta

Renato Chaves

Rodrigo Rossi Horochovski

Rogério Arantes

Rossana Guerra

Suylan de Almeida Midlej e Silva

Thiago José Tavares Ávila

Vanessa Elias de Oliveira

Vinicius Reis

Wagner Pralon Mancuso

6 thoughts on “Brazilian Anticorruption Experts Weigh in on the Presidential Election

  1. This letter shows that, as was the case during the Brexit vote in 2016, the most remarkable thing about the 2022 election in Brazil is how united elites of all stripes are against Bolsonaro [Brexit]. Indeed, the chattering classes are so vehemently opposed to Bolsonaro [Brexit] that should he win, they’ll assume it was due to fake news, lie-mongering, and deceptive promises.

    We’ll see how the scenario plays out in Brazil, but what fails to be seen again and again by Lula-supporters is just how often they downplay the criticisms of their chosen candidate and strip supporters of their opponent of all legitimacy. So supporters of Bolsonaro see him as their “savior” candidate? And what does this sentence from the letter above sound like?

    “Many of Lula’s historical rivals have set aside their differences and rallied around his presidential bid – because he represents the only current alternative to a project that seeks to dismantle our republic.”

    Lula is the savior candidate of not just those who preach democracy — even as pro-Lula forces break democratic norms — but those who have decided that a president who pushes all the wrong buttons *must* constitute an “imminent threat”.

    As a president with the audacity to want to get legislation passed (much like his opponent when he was in office), his critics tirade about his “secret budget” which legally (if possibly unconstitutionally) institutionalizes — and even documents, if secretly — what his predecessors had to try to do with under-the-table bribes. Neither option is ideal, but one isn’t technically corrupt either.

    As an old military captain, Bolsonaro jokes about the good old days of the military regime, feeding myths that a large portion of the population agrees with (even if the data doesn’t support it).

    Faced by a Supreme Electoral Tribunal led by an ally of his opponent, he questions the election’s integrity. This even as the Supreme Electoral Tribunal blatantly stamps out freedom of expression (what The Council of Europe describes as “one of the essential foundations of a democratic society”). An imminent threat to democracy, indeed.

    Worse still, Bolsonary encouraged a modest increase in deforestation — even though data published by Vox shows it to be on par with the rise in deforestation during his predecessor Michel Temer, and just a little more than that seen during the regime of Dilma Rouseff:

    Finally, Bolsonaro has encouraged liberalizing gun ownership in a country with intense public safety problems, threatening to turn the second-largest American country into one more like the first — the United States of America. As in the US, for every story about reckless gun use, there are others told over kitchen tables about how a divorced mother of six finally persuaded her ex-husband to leave her home for good: after she legally acquired a gun and brandished it in his face in her living room.

    As with Brexit, the issue is not so much about threatening democracy – which is in full force as voters express passionate opinions – but the fact that one side cannot tolerate, indeed, cannot even accept, that up to half of the population would genuinely prefer a candidate who supports the positions that he does. The result is an anti-democratic campaign uniting the intelligentsia of the liberal left against the thought crimes of the middle right.

  2. A story in the New York Times at the time relating to Operation Carwash pointed to a profund judicial corruption scandal caused by leaked chat transcripts among the magistrate and prosecutors in the cases related to Lula da Silva and others. They were saying things like «we have to get Lula or else Bolsonaro will not win». Literally. The magistrate in the case was declared partial by the Supreme Court and the cases dismissed. After sentencing Lula this Sérgio Moro person was appointed minister of justice by Bolsonaro. Quid pro quo? You think? Lula has won a million-real award against the top federal prosecutor in the case and apparently intends to work his way down. The magistrate unfortunately has been elected to the Senate where he may enjoy parliamentary immunity. Apparently the Brazilians do not jail corrupt judges for things like obstruction of justice and false prosecution. Have your Brazilian friends translate the «Vaza Jato» documents pubished by The Intercept Brazil and read for yourself.

  3. This post raises a important question: which candidate will be better for the cause of anti-corruption in the Brazilian election? The post then addresses the question by sharing the opinion of a very credible group of 59 anti-corruption researchers with “academic and professional careers to studying corruption, ethics, integrity and transparency…. in Brazil and in countries around the world”

    But what follows is not a measured evaluation of the merits of each candidate’s position. Nor does their letter appraise — or even acknowledge — the main arguments of those that take the opposite view. Instead, it is case study in logical fallacies.

    First, the appeal to the authority. Due to their backgrounds and experience, the authors claim to be the “the ones who know”. But authority or experience in a particular area is not enough—evidence is needed to support why their preferred candidate will be better for Brazil’s democratic institutions and progress against corruption.

    Second comes a hasty generalization combined with an ad hominem: Despite their flaws, the authors say, all previous administrations since the new Brazilian republic was founded contributed to democracy and strengthened rule of law institutions—except the administration of Jair Bolsonaro.

    The authors refer to no research and provide no measured analysis to arrive at this conclusion, and in fact, every bolded item in the letter’s 6th paragraph can be arguably leveled against the Lula administration at one time or another.

    These creaky logical foundations are followed by sweeping claims like the one that Lula represents “the only current alternative to a project that seeks to dismantle our republic”. The irony is not lost on those who, just today, saw the TSE once again censure an incident on the public record: this time a recent photo that showed candidate Lula wearing a hat whose meaning could be miscontrued. These actions bend (if not break) the idea of freedom of expression in favor of one side, since it is challenging to find a similar TSE decision that sought to ensure that Bolsonaro wasn’t misconstrued.

    Then comes the false dichotomy: “…when faced with the choice of being in the opposition to a democratic government or an authoritarian one, we will always opt for the democratic”. In one breath, Bolsonaro has lost all shreds of democratic credibility – he’s an autocrat, and “voting” for him is a vote against democracy.

    Such leaps of logic do a disservice to readers that are less informed about the country’s politics and are likely to take these statements at face value.

    When pushed to an extreme, such unchecked characterizations can push voters and leaders alike into a frenzy. Like Gaston self-righteously leading a mob to the castle to “kill the beast”, any number of anti-democratic and unjust actions can be justified against Bolsonaro and his supporters (and vice versa). The one-sided censuring decisions by the TSE are a clear example of this. If its “no lying during an election” mandate were carried out equally, it’s highly likely that the letter published on this post would have to be taken down barring a massive fine.

    The question of which candidate is better for anti-corruption, or for democracy, is not found by hearing more from the side in Lula’s favor. It will come from investigating the evidence *against* Lula and in Bolsonaro’s favor. However unpleasant that idea might sound to Lula’s supporters, those kinds of investigators are necessary in a healthy, pluralist society. Civilly hearing and taking seriously the arguments made by the other side is what democracy requires. We all know that you can’t test the validity of a theory by only seeking additional confirming evidence. That’s why academic papers are reviewed by colleagues who think differently from us and who challenge our results with alternative methods or reworked tests of the data.

    Hence, I think it’s important to hear arguments that contradict the lines shared so far on this blog.

    Deeply flawed as he is, President Bolsonaro does have accomplishments that history – and pro-democracy, pro-development, and even anti-corruption supporters – will someday remember. In historical terms, and in contrast with some popular imaginations of him, Bolsonaro’s term was not marked by massive destruction of the Amazon. Average annual loss of forestlands was above 15,000 square kilometers between 1990 and 2008. In 2021, deforestation during Bolsonaro’s administration peaked at roughly 13,000 square kilometers. This is still far too much for most of us (including me), but it seems far too low, for example, to merit the “rampant deforestation” label that the Economist slapped on him in their critical 1-paragraph summary of his candidacy.

    The Bolsonaro years also saw, under pressure from the upcoming election (which politician isn’t?), the doubling of Lula’s signature poverty-fighting program, Bolsa Familia, and its incorporation into a more inclusive system called Auxilio Brasil. They saw the historic high-security imprisonment of some of the country’s most dangerous organized criminals. They saw the launch of one of the free, popular, and highly successful instant payment, PIX. It saw a modest reform of the government’s finance towards greater sustainability. They witnessed one of the most successful national vaccination campaigns in the world (though we certainly can’t credit the president for that, unless it was reverse psychology that did it). They included the rollout of common-sense stimulus and income support that have helped citizens and the economy weather the COVID and inflation storm far better than neighboring Argentina. And they saw a historic liberalization of the country’s previously unipolar media landscape that has resulted in a more open – and consequently more contentious – market for television and news.

    To be sure, no more and no less credit should be given to Bolsonaro for these accomplishments than is right to attribute to Lula for his accomplishments during a historically favorable decade for Brazil’s economy, development, and public finances.

    But for justice’s sake we must beware of characterizations of Lula that are too rosy, that forget Mensalao, Lava Jato, the dismissal of almost all his closest advisors for blatant corruption (“the company you keep”), the dozens of judges that found him guilty of corruption crimes, and the warning that, as put by the former Economist writer Michael Reid in his 2014 book on Brazil, that for the leaders of Brazil’s Workers’ Party (PT) “the end–power–justified any means and…the interests of the party were superior to those of the Brazilian state”. These factors validate the fear that if or when Lula and his PT comrades return to office, there will be more large-scale corruption.

    Meanwhile, for the same reason, we must beware of characterizations that paint Bolsonaro as an autocrat bent on the destruction of the Brazilian republic. There are numerous data points that contradict this characterization and reveal his actions as consistently subservient to democratic institutions, but here’s one recent one: When Bolsonaro was interviewed after failing to win the first round of the Brazilian presidential election, he ruled out the idea of adding additional justices to the supreme court to change its decision-making — an idea that supporters of Biden still call on him to do to change the course of the current US Supreme Court.

    Despite what many worst-casers believe, it’s highly unlikely that Brasil’s democracy will end with the election of either candidate. There is a fair case to be made for either one—but not for one and only one. The biggest enemy of Brazilian democracy is the belief that the opponent’s victory means absolute defeat, and therefore that victory must be achieved at all costs. We lose democracy and anti-corruption when we pay that bill.

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