The shadows of corruption

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The shadows of corruption

For the past two weeks, Brazil has had a new political leadership. Interim President Michel Temer replaced the former president, Dilma Rousseff, amid high political instability, deep economic recession and widespread corruption scandals.

Brazil’s National Congress suspended Rousseff from the presidency for allegations of corruption less than two years after her re-election to a second term. Ever since her slim electoral victory in 2014, the political elite in Brazil began practicing fratricide. Elite disunity came as a result of a successful corruption probe that destabilized the murky political deals that used to guarantee Brazil’s governability.

The current leadership shift in Brazil is largely applauded both inside and outside the country, as it increases the possibility of an economic recovery and the emergence of a new political pact. However, Temer’s task of stopping the political instability is daunting.

Several members of the new government are involved in the same corruption scandal that has caused the current political crisis. Last week, several days after the new cabinet was formed, the minister of planning resigned due to evidence of his involvement in the Petrobras corruption scandal. Ongoing investigations deeply compromise the political careers of several important members of Temer’s government and party, the center-right Brazilian Party for Democratic Mobilization.

Temer’s challenges of governance are huge, and the political instability is far from over. Rousseff is helping to augment these challenges.

While waiting for her impeachment process to be finalized in the National Congress, Rousseff’s new hobby is to antagonize the Brazilian democratic institutions. She frames her impeachment as an orchestrated “coup” that brought an illegitimate new president to power.

Despite Rousseff’s low credibility, her populist discourse does not help Temer, who still needs to garner popular support.

In this critical moment of the democratic history of Brazil, two questions help us understand the road ahead: how can Temer guarantee governability in the largely corrupt Brazilian political establishment? How can the new president foster elite cooperation around Brazil’s economic recovery without resorting to corruption? The consolidation of new political practices will hopefully create the environment for a governance pact not based on corruption.

Until the big corruption scheme involving Petrobras was uncovered in 2013, the pilfering of the public oil company had a unifying effect among politicians. Different political parties from distinct ideologies collaborated to systematically create an institutional environment friendly toward corruption.

A critical unifying element of the scheme was the governing strategy of Rousseff and her predecessor. Their strategy was to practice old-style politics under a new socially progressive discourse with a few innovative social programs. For the past 13 years in power, while promoting redistribution policies, the Worker’s Party (PT) aligned itself with the traditional right, historically averse to pro-poor policies. This elite loyalty could be sustained as long as the PT could keep money flowing to politicians and support for its social programs intact.

Legitimizing itself in power through redistributive programs, the PT managed to maintain public support despite creating a cozy environment for corruption. But in a corrupt political system, public institutions captured by private interests eventually offset the gains from social redistribution programs.

This political system became too corrupt to sustain a functional government in power. In the end, loyalties could no longer be efficiently rewarded through corruption rents. The impeachment of Rousseff is the epilogue of this tale.

The ouster of Rousseff has been healthy for Brazilian democracy, as it shows that institutions are autonomous to apply the rule of law. Yet there is still a long way for Brazil to prove that corruption is not the only way of practicing politics. Brazil is learning at a huge cost that real transformation is only possible without corruption. The public, especially the middle class, is becoming very intolerant to the growing corruption scandals.

In this unstable scenario under high public pressure for change, Temer has only a small window to maneuver. He currently has the ability and a capable economic team to restore confidence in the economy, but hopefully, his legacy will not be limited to economic recovery. If he is able to preserve the autonomy of democratic institutions to reverse the widespread sentiment of continued corruption, he might be remembered as the president that led Brazil to its second democratic transition.

*The author is a professor at Hankuk University’s Graduate School of International and Area Studies.

Helder Ferreira do Vale
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