As Political Tensions Rise, Will Brazilians Lose Sight of War on Corruption?

A demonstrator protests the impeachment process against Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, April 11, 2016. (Leo Correa/AP Photo)

A Brazilian congressional committee yesterday approved impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. When widespread demonstrations first erupted in Brazil in June 2013, people from all walks of life united to protest the country’s rampant political corruption and other grievances. Since then, protest narratives have become more complex and divided among supporters and opponents of Rousseff, former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, and their ruling Workers’ Party. This shift threatens to divert Brazilians’ attention from the end goal of eliminating widespread and institutionalized political corruption.

The political crisis has increasingly polarized Brazilian society, threatening the stability of national democratic institutions. As Rousseff’s impeachment proceedings progress, divisions along class, race, and ideological lines will likely become more pronounced. These divisions are deeply rooted in the country’s vast and historic economic disparity, which has largely resulted from centuries of racial inequalities dating back to the period of slavery. Prior to the end of Brazil’s military dictatorship in 1985—and throughout the structural adjustment policies of the 1990s—social and economic empowerment of the lower classes was not high on the political agenda. With the rise of the Workers’ Party and its redistributive policies—including implementation of cash transfer programs such as the Bolsa Família—millions of Brazilians were lifted out of poverty and into a new middle class. As a result, many of the poor and working class have become avid Workers’ Party supporters.
The enmity towards the party evident in the street protests is a more recent phenomenon. In fact, when Lula relinquished the presidency more than five years ago—in line with Brazil’s two-term limit—his approval rating was an astonishing 87%, which is one of the highest ever recorded in a democratic country. His broad support in 2010 can be largely attributed to the fact that, during his presidency, Brazil was able to capitalize on China’s immense demand for natural resources, spawning a commodities boom that lasted nearly a decade. Almost immediately after Lula handed the presidency to Rousseff in 2011, Brazil’s once spectacular economic growth began showing signs of decline, as global markets slumped and the price of commodities steadily decreased.

As the economy plummeted, so did support for Rousseff and the Workers’ Party. During the 2014 presidential elections, Rousseff managed to defeat Brazilian Social Democratic Party contender Aécio Neves da Cunha by just 1.6%. By 2015, Brazil’s economy had shrunk by 3.8%, inflation had reached a 12-year high of 10.7%, and national unemployment hovered at 9%. Many Brazilian and foreign commentators criticized Rousseff’s ability to address fundamental and structural problems of the economy, including pension and tax reform, and the country’s ballooning budget deficit, which contributed to the downgrading of Brazil’s sovereign debt rating.

Despite progress being constrained by the political stalemate, many believe Rousseff’s deals to avoid impeachment have diminished the chances for national reform. To those currently demanding her impeachment, Rousseff and the Workers’ Party represent a populist regime that retains power through the implementation of vote-buying social welfare programs. However, despite facing off numerous economic challenges, Rousseff is now struggling to maintain political legitimacy following the exposure of the largest corruption scandal in Brazil’s history.

Deeply embedded in Brazil’s political institutions, corruption is often regarded as a remnant of the period of military leadership. Indeed, only two years after Brazil’s first democratically elected, post-dictatorship leader, Fernando Affonso Collor de Mello, took power in 1990, allegations of influence-peddling surfaced, leading to his impeachment shortly thereafter. Following years of slow progress against fighting this type of corruption, Lula and the Workers’ Party he founded ascended to power by pledging to enforce greater transparency at all levels of government. This was once again short-lived: only two years later, Brazil’s federal police uncovered evidence of an extensive vote-buying scheme in which public funds were being diverted to pay select members of Congress in exchange for favorable decisions. Despite widespread criticism, Lula was able to avert public upheaval and secure re-election by pointing to the country’s tremendous economic growth, and expanding social welfare programs benefiting the poor. Rousseff did not have this thriving economy to fall back on when, in March 2014, federal police unveiled yet another graft, this time surrounding Brazil’s largest corporation, the oil giant Petrobras.

A truly massive kickback scheme, the Petrobras scandal launched Brazil’s most ambitious corruption probe to date. Coordinated by the federal police and overseen by Judge Sérgio Moro, Operation Car Wash—as it came to be termed—continues to investigate collusion between senior officials of the state-owned Petrobras and a clandestine cartel of companies that collectively misappropriated as much as 10-40 billion reais ($3-12 billion USD). Thus far, Operation Car Wash has recovered 2.9 billion reais ($830 million USD). Despite the alleged involvement of politicians from across the political spectrum, the Workers’ Party—whose former Chief of Staff José Dirceu and Treasurer João Vaccari Neto were implicated—became the primary target of criticism. The ensuing political storm provided a window for the opposition to discredit Rousseff, who had served as Chair of Petrobras while the corruption was believed to have taken place. Indeed, Rousseff, whose impeachment proceedings stem from charges of fiscal mismanagement, claims to be the victim of political attacks orchestrated by the opposition and business elites, drawing parallels to the 1964 coup that ended the left-wing government of João Goulart and installed the military dictatorship, which lasted several decades.

Tensions reached a peak in early March this year when the federal police questioned Lula over his alleged involvement in the Petrobras scandal. Subsequently, on March 13th a record number of Brazilians—estimated at 1.4 to 3 million—took to the streets displaying the national colors, demanding the imprisonment of Lula and the impeachment of Rousseff. In response, on March 18th hundreds of thousands of Workers’ Party supporters clad in the party’s official red organized massive rallies throughout Brazil in a show of strength and support. The increasing use of social media for political discourse has further exacerbated the tensions; over time, messages of racism and classism have come to dominate online forums.

Rather than uniting Brazilians against institutionalized political corruption, the Petrobras scandal—and its subsequent politicization—has split Brazilian society. Even Judge Moro—who became the face of the anti-corruption campaign—has not escaped political pressure. Following Rousseff’s mid-March decision to appoint Lula as her chief of staff and thereby granting him immunity from federal prosecution, Moro leaked an illegally recorded conversation between the two politicians. This alluded to the expediency of Lula’s appointment and lead many to believe Rousseff had obstructed justice. Despite receiving significant support from the predominantly white middle and upper classes, the Supreme Court condemned Moro’s decision as unconstitutional and a clear violation of jurisdiction.

Despite this, the judiciary’s record on investigating and prosecuting suspects in the Petrobras scandal, regardless of economic stature and political influence, has been considered exemplary. Indeed, since their March 2014 launch, the investigations have led to the arrest of over 130 people, including dozens of politicians and business executives. Prior to 2010, no incumbent politician had been prosecuted on corruption charges. Many positive outcomes have indirectly emerged from the scandal and its subsequent demonstrations. Brazil’s Clean Company Act, signed into law in late 2014, for example, imposes strict civil and administrative liabilities on domestic and foreign companies for acts of corruption. There has also been an economic payoff: with the implementation of internal monitoring and accountability mechanisms, shares of Petrobras increased 63% in March this year. Meanwhile, several other anti-corruption measures are beginning to gain momentum. Prosecutor General Rodrigo Janot, under the auspices of the Federal Public Ministry, is campaigning nationwide for a 10-point plan to deter corruption at all levels of government by increasing prison sentences and improving judicial procedures. Janot has already obtained 2.1 million signatures in support of the proposed legislation—far more than the 1.5 million required—and hopes to present it to Congress soon.

Nonetheless, despite the seemingly opportune moment to capitalize on public sentiment and pressure Congress to push anti-corruption legislation, Brazil’s political and ideological polarization may hinder progress as the attention shifts to Rousseff’s impeachment. Many remain skeptical that the process will bring about lasting positive change, and point to the fact that Rousseff’s top three likely replacements—Vice President Michel Temer, President of the Senate Renan Calheiros, and Speaker of the Chamber of Deputies Eduardo Cunha—are all either facing impeachment proceedings or under investigation in Operation Car Wash.

Amid the chaos, the departure of the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party—the country’s largest political party—from the ruling coalition will also exacerbate tensions. The key to progress will be the judiciary continuing to lead by example, working as independently from the government as possible. This will help to retain the credibility of Operation Car Wash and anti-corruption measures more generally. Furthermore, Brazilians must not lose sight of what is truly at stake, no matter their background: the opportunity to eliminate widespread and institutionalized corruption in their country’s political system through democratic and constitutional means.

Rodrigo Saad is External Relations Coordinator at the International Peace Institute.