Democracy vs. corruption in BrazilBrazil has entered a spiral of political instability that is rapidly worsening. What a few months ago seemed to be a governance crisis that started with the re-election of President Dilma Rousseff in 2014, is quickly turning into a full-blown institutional crisis.
How did Brazil, the biggest democracy in Latin America, become a political mess? The answer is loud and clear — political corruption. A huge bribery scheme operating in the core government institutions was slowly uncovered under a public prosecutor’s probe, nicknamed “Operation Car Wash.” This operation, which was initiated two years ago, has so far put over 60 serving politicians from different political parties under investigation, condemned approximately 90 defendants with lengthy sentences and hopes to recover to the public coffers around $6 billion.
The scope of this crisis is reaching historical proportions. Never in the history of Brazil has a probe against corruption involved so many politicians, including the speakers of the lower and upper houses of the National Congress. Since 2003, several parties from different ideological orientations, together with the ruling leftist Workers’ Party, utilized public concessions and contracts granted to a few construction conglomerates to enrich politicians. They did this by channeling billions from the public oil firm, Petrobrás, into the pockets of politicians belonging to the governing coalition.
Despite widespread corruption, democracy in Brazil is showing its merits. Democracy is bringing the actions of opportunistic politicians misusing public institutions for private interests to the forefront in a bold statement against corruption. As the corruption scandals edge closer to the president, Rousseff’s government systematically attempts to use public institutions to protect allied corrupt politicians.
The anticorruption fight of Operation Car Wash made important advancements in recent weeks, reaching former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, a highly influential leftist leader and vital actor in Brazilian democratization during the 1980s. Ex-President Lula da Silva, who served from 2003 to 2010, is accused of personally benefiting from Petrobrás’ corruption.
Police intercepts of phone calls between the ex-president with President Rousseff and several cabinet ministers disclose their intention to influence the decisions of judges at the Supreme Court and to politically polarize the country. His involvement in the scandals weakens President Rousseff, his political protégée and successor. She has already become the most unpopular Brazilian president in decades, with a popularity rate that barely reaches 10 percent.
President Rousseff had an unusual response to the intensification of the corruption investigations that accompanied the success of Operation Car Wash. She nominated Lula da Silva as a government minister in order to grant him legal privileges and shield him from being indicted. So far, court injunctions are preventing Lula da Silva from taking office.
The crisis is hitting the country at its heart. More than 3.5 million antigovernment demonstrators marched throughout the country last week, demanding the impeachment of President Rousseff in one of the biggest protests in Brazil’s history. Following these massive protests, the National Congress started procedures for the impeachment of President Rousseff — a move supported by 68 percent of the Brazilian electorate, according to the latest polls.
While it is impossible to predict the outcome of this political upheaval, it is becoming clear that the best way to end the crisis is to oust President Rousseff. The list of her wrongdoings is vast: attempting to obstruct justice, bridging fiscal discipline laws and recurrent illegality in the financing of electoral campaigns. President Rousseff no longer has credibility to govern.
In the battle for political survival, President Rousseff is making Brazil look like a deviant democracy. She and her close associates are trying to distribute patronage to maintain a shrinking coalition in the National Congress and to mobilize the left popular base to question the legality of judicial investigations. When a government is deliberately blocking the harmonious functioning of public institutions on behalf of narrow interests, its biggest enemy becomes the rule of law.
Unfortunately for Brazil, this scenario tarnishes its international image and deters its aspirations to become a global player. Indeed, the country is paying a high price for its institutional crisis. Brazil is facing its worst economic recession since the 1930s. After a negative economic growth rate of 3.8 percent in 2015, the Brazilian economy is expected to shrink a further 3.5 percent in 2016. Brazil is also losing other battles. The country is undergoing a health calamity with the Zika virus outbreak, caused by a mosquito that Brazilian public officials are demonstrating to be ill-prepared to combat.
Given the extent and damage of corruption essential to public institutions in Brazil, public support for democracy might be waning in a tanking economy. In the current Brazilian-style democracy, corrupt politicians survive and protect the rule of law only so long as the laws are applicable to everyone but themselves. In this fight of democracy against corruption, the former is only temporarily winning.
*The author is a professor at Hankuk University’s Graduate School of International and Area Studies.
Helder Ferreira do Vale