Brazilian Corruption and the 2018 Elections

Over the weekend, the New York Times Magazine asked whether the recent anti-corruption surges in Brazil, South Korea, and South Africa will have a sustainable, ongoing impact on the government and economies of these countries, and their regions more broadly.

The article presents an even handed appeal: while there are certainly reasons to be cynical (among them, flagrant corruption and nepotism at the highest levels of US government, as well as recent extrajudicial actions taken by China and Saudi Arabia in the name of “anticorruption”), there is reason for hope as well, most notably in the decline of the “fatalism” surrounding corruption long felt by citizens of these countries.

Here in Brazil, corruption is far-and-away the number one concern raised by Brazilians in my unscientific polling of Uber / Taxi drivers, especially in relation to the upcoming October / November Presidential elections. Brazilians have long grown accustomed to the types of “inefficiencies” surrounding the allocation of public resources, until recently the fight against corruption, enshrined through the Brazilian proverb of “rouba mas faz” ([s]he steals, but [s]he gets it done) had many antagonists, but very few protagonists.

Considering the noise I’ve grown accustomed to in the run-up to US elections, I have been incredibly surprised by the minimal amount of campaigning and media attention given to Presidential aspirants, now less than 5 months leading up to the first round of elections. Since Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s last democratically-elected President, was elected in 2014, there has been a very public impeachment (read: hers), her predecessor, Lula da Silva, has been arrested and placed behind bars, and more broadly the public-private backbone of some of Brazil’s foremost companies (Odebrecht, JBS) has been blown open. The country has been ensnared in a real life soap opera that has already been dramatized into a movie and television series, yet there seems to be no outspoken connection by any of the candidates being drawn between this hugely dramatic shift and the upcoming the Presidential elections.

Considering the primary preoccupation of many Brazilians, one would consider Sergio Mora, the Brazilian federal judge who has become the public face of the Lavo Jato scandal, an incredibly viable and popular candidate. However, to date there has been no formal indication that Mora will run, as critiques of the politicization of his judicial position have partially drowned out the incredibly herculean task already achieved by Mora and his team in rooting out much of the power structure behind the Lavo Jato scandal. Similarly, Joaquim Barbosa, the former Chief Justice of Brazil, was seen as a candidate with little chance of attaining the Presidency before he formally bowed out of contention this week.

Instead, the Brazilian military, whose history of deposing a Leftist leader in the face of inflation and lagging growth presents a troubling precedent for the health of Brazilian democracy, has returned as a loud and problematic voice in the battle against corruption. In the lead-up to Lula’s arrest, in which doubt was cast as to the conviction of the Brazilian judiciary and police to carry out the arrest in the face of resistance, the Commander of the Brazilian Army, Eduardo Villas Bôas, took to Twitter to express the views of the broader Brazilian military and its role in preserving “respect for the Constitution, social peace and democracy.” Given the military’s historic role and the relative youth of Brazilian democracy, this strikes me as a disturbing signal sent to the broader Brazilian population of the military’s ongoing vigilance and propensity to step in the event that the situation does not improve.

Despite the well-documented abuses of the Brazilian military, it feels like there is a bit of nuance amongst the Brazilian populace in their attitudes towards the military, and its historic role in creating efficiency and stamping out corruption. While the tweets by the General were subject to rebuke, it doesn’t seem as if there is a broader concern of the military’s outspoken stance. The military seems to be considered a “last resort,” or a backstop against an incompetent or irrevocably corrupt democratically-elected candidate. How far Brazilians are willing to go in to ensure that corruption is rooted out remains to be seen. One troubling indicator is the continued polling prominence of the right-wing candidate Jair Bolsonaro, now the leading candidate following the arrest of Lula. Bolsonaro is primarily known for his status as a former military officer, and is largely seen as incorruptible, above reproach, and coming from outside the system. This may prove to be the keys to his success, despite his long-documented streak of hateful and ignorant views that urban Brazilians seem to think make him unelectable (sound familiar?).

As financial markets advisor Sergio Goldman wrote today in a Linkedin post, there seems to be little innovation or enthusiasm amongst the Brazilian Presidential candidates so far. Whether this is due to the fact that the television campaign season doesn’t begin until August, or that there are still inspiring candidates like Mora yet to announce their intentions, remains to be seen. Regardless, it will be very interesting to view firsthand the anti-corruption mandate handed down by the Brazilian populace following the October/November elections, and any further actions taken by Brazil’s next President as a result.

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