Participatory Budgeting: A Way Forward for the Brazilian Anticorruption Agenda

In Brazil’s presidential elections last month, former President Lula, leader of the left-wing Workers’ Party, narrowly defeated right-wing incumbent President Bolsonaro. But even though many Brazilian anticorruption scholars and activists, as well as members of the international anticorruption community (including on this blog), had endorsed Lula over Bolsonaro, there is considerable pessimism about the future of anticorruption reform in Brazil, at least in the near term. Although Lula’s previous administrations had advanced important anticorruption reforms, as well as broader institutional reforms to strengthen the independence and effectiveness of Brazil’s institutions of justice, the fact that Lula was himself incarcerated for corruption offenses until the Supreme Court voided his conviction on procedural grounds has made anticorruption such a polarizing issue—and so associated the anticorruption agenda with the right wing—that many believe that Lula will be much more hostile to an anticorruption agenda this time around. Moreover, even if President Lula were amenable to backing anticorruption reforms, the right wing dominates Congress, making such reforms even less likely to pass.

Although the prospects for significant advances in the anticorruption agenda at the national level are dim, there are more opportunities for progress than the dominant pessimistic view acknowledges. Importantly, Brazil is a federal republic, where both state governments and local municipalities have a considerable degree of autonomy. Furthermore, even if the rhetoric of anticorruption has become unhelpfully politicized in Brazil, there are many reforms that do not overtly target “corruption” but that nonetheless may have significant anticorruption benefits. So, the way forward for Brazilian anticorruption reformers over the next several years involves a shift in focus from federal-level anticorruption prosecutions to local-level institutional reforms with significant but indirect anticorruption effects.

One reform that fits the bill is participatory budgeting (PB). Brazil’s anticorruption community should make common cause with other good-government and pro-democracy advocates to push for the expansion of PB at the municipal level.

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Chile’s Way Forward: Corruption and Disqualification:

Many democracies have sought to preserve the integrity of their governments by prohibiting individuals who have been convicted of corruption-related offenses (or other serious crimes) from holding public office, either for a period of time or permanently. Such a prohibition was on the ballot this past September in Chile, when citizens voted on whether to adopt a new constitution. That proposed constitution included, among its many provisions, a specific article (Article 172) that would have disqualified from public office any person who had been convicted of a corruption offense. The provision did not become law, however, because Chilean voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed constitution for reasons that had almost nothing to do with the relatively obscure Article 172.

The inclusion of that article in the proposed constitution does, however, invite the consideration of two distinct but related questions: First, should Chile—or another similarly situated democracy—adopt a law disqualifying those convicted of corruption from holding public office? Second, if the answer to the first question is yes, should that disqualification rule appear in the constitution (as opposed to an ordinary statute), which is, by design, much harder to change?

The answer to the first question, at least for Chile, is probably yes. The answer to the second question, though, is no. Chile should experiment with a disqualification law, but should not constitutionalize it.

This conclusion arises from a careful consideration of the advantages and disadvantages of disqualification laws and, perhaps more importantly, the conditions that must obtain for those laws to be beneficial:

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