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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