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:
Back in 2017, a Brazilian court convicted former President Lula for corruption offenses in connection with a seaside apartment that Lula allegedly received as a bribe from a construction firm. In 2019, he was again found guilty of a corruption offense in a separate trial, this time for receiving bribes in the form of improvements to his country house. And he faced other corruption charges as well, including an indictment in which Odebrecht—a major construction firm and one of the most significant players in the Car Wash scandal— allegedly bribed Lula by agreeing to construct a headquarters for his foundation, the Lula Institute. The principal evidence for this latter accusation was acquired by prosecutors as part of a so-called “leniency agreement” with Odebrecht. In Brazil, leniency agreements are negotiated settlements, regulated by the Clean Company Act (CCA), in which companies voluntarily agree to confess unlawful conduct, pay penalties, and take other remedial action—including cooperating with prosecutors by providing evidence against other wrongdoers—and, in return, the companies have their sanctions and fines reduced (see, for example, here, here, and here). Such agreements have been critical to the success of the Car Wash Operation, and more generally to the effectiveness of Brazil’s fight against corruption.
But this past June, the Brazilian Supreme Court decided to nullify the evidence against Lula that had been collected under the Odebrecht leniency agreement (here). The Court’s ruling was not only legally flawed, but its reasoning, if accepted, threatens to undo dozens of prior corruption convictions and to create a cloud of uncertainty surrounding the validity of evidence obtained in leniency agreements. Such a ruling would needlessly undermine the ability of Brazilian prosecutors and courts to fight corruption in the future. Of course, the Court may not actually adhere to its legal reasoning in future cases—but that only underscores another problem: though the Brazilian Supreme Court has criticized lower court proceedings as biased against Lula, the Court’s own conduct, particularly in the most recent case, suggests an unacceptable bias in Lula’s favor.