The Brazilian political system is in real trouble. It doesn’t take a genius to spot its faults. The system has lacked transparency and its members have lacked proper accountability perhaps since the country’s birth. Politics as usual in Brazil has included a certain amount of graft, bribery, kickback, or whichever euphemism you prefer to use for political dishonesty, for many years, and such a legacy will not be dissolved overnight. What is more, should significant gains be made in ridding the government of its bad actors, there is no guarantee that those who replace them will be better for the country. There are people, movements and circumstances that offer glimmers of hope, some a rather strong glimmer, that better days are ahead; but there are also people, groups, movements and historical factors that make those better days less certain.
Cause for Skepticism
There are a few people to watch — or watch out for, depending upon one's perspective — in the coming presidential election cycle. The first is Rodrigo Maia. He is the Speaker of the House and therefore next in the line of succession, should President Temer be removed from office. Though it seems unlikely at this point that another impeachment plays out before the 2018 election, it is worth noting that Maia is currently under investigation for corruption, like so much of the Brazilian political class (Lopes, June 29). He is a political insider and as such is not the most popular man in the country at present. Should Temer be removed from office and Maia chosen to serve out the rest of his (Rousseff’s) term, it is unlikely he will provide much stability leading up to the 2018 election.
The next two personalities to keep an eye on may get the benefit of the doubt from many Brazilian voters because they are considered outside the political status quo. Anyone who sees the system as a corrupt, irreconcilable mess might be drawn to such candidates because they have ideas and agendas outside of the mainstream. Those voters may want to take caution, however, because that line of thinking is partially responsible for landing Donald Trump in the American Presidency. In fact, these two men are notable precisely for their similarities to President Trump. Whether or not one is a supporter of Mr. Trump’s agenda, policy ideas, or politics, it is difficult to miss the chaos that has surrounded the initial phase of his term. Getting the right people in place and working in the same direction when the president has ideas that are outside the norm is a daunting task, and the failure to build a smooth-running administration can sink a presidency. New and different do not necessarily mean better.
The first name on this list is Jair Bolsonaro. He has been on the Brazilian political scene since 1988 at all levels, and is currently a congressman from the state of Rio de Janeiro. Bolsonaro is a controversial figure because of his far right political views and this is where he draws comparisons to President Trump. He is an admirer of Trump and holds positions in favor of torture and against rights for homosexuals (Lopes, June 29). He is also an anti-environmentalist who has — this is one area in which he and Mr. Trump part company — somehow managed to avoid any allegations of wrongdoing, an impressive feat for a Brazilian politician with any longevity (Phillips). Like President Trump, he is counting on a previously silent conservative majority to turn out to vote for him as he would represent a sharp turn away from the Workers’ Party (PT) policies that have dominated Brazilian politics since the time of Lula.
Joao Doria, for his part, is much more Trump-like in background and personality. Doria is a businessman who starred in a Brazilian version of Mr. Trump’s popular TV show, “The Apprentice.” He is popular for reasons similar to some that were instrumental in bringing Mr. Trump to the White House. He is an outsider and has thus not been tainted by Brazilian politics, nor does he have the stink of Lava Jato on him. He claims to be anti-establishment and says he would run the government like a business. “I am in politics, but not of politics,” he says. “I am a manager” (The Economist, Who). Running a business and running a government are two very different things, and those who have watched the Trump Administration in its early days surely have noticed the managerial difficulties the President has had. However, the struggles of Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, by all accounts an efficient and effective executive of a giant multinational corporation, are perhaps more instructive. Tillerson was an excellent manager in the business world, but he has struggled to run the diplomatic arm of the United States Government with the same levels of efficiency and organization. Doria may be an excellent businessman, but that does not guarantee a successful presidential administration.
The next reason for skepticism is that the existing political class, the “old guard”, is still in the picture. These are in most cases savvy career politicians who stand to lose their livelihoods should the voting public land them in the unemployment line. There are things they can, and are trying to, do to impede this change, such as implementing a “closed-list voting system, which would require voters to cast a ballot for a list of politicians generated by each party, rather than for an individual candidate” (The Economist, Upgrading). This would allow the parties to choose the particular congressmen, not the people. Such a change is sure to be met with popular protest, but that doesn’t mean it it cannot be finessed into law.
Many of these politicians believe that the true source of consternation among the Brazilian citizenry is the economy. If they can get that turned around, so the thinking goes, people will be satisfied, and more fundamental systemic changes won’t be necessary. They will certainly try to do this, but what are the chances of success? The Brazilian economy is in bad shape, and unlikely to be fixed quickly. Even if it were, would the people go back to accepting political corruption, or have they crossed some sort of Rubicon?
While the old guard has its work cut out for it, it is important to remember that Rousseff was impeached during Lava Jato, on a charge unrelated to Lava Jato, by politicians who were the subjects of investigations connected to Lava Jato. The old guard has shown itself to be adept at diverting attention and controlling narratives, and it won’t go down without a fight. Will it be able to reinvent, or re-brand, itself and survive? Time will tell.
Then we have Lava Jato itself. Most think of it as a noble enterprise, one that may reconcile the Brazilian political system. However, it is difficult for such a high profile investigation to avoid becoming politicized. It has been built upon leaked information and the paranoia that such a rash of leaks creates. Politicians are constantly looking over their shoulders wondering if they will be the next one caught up in the dragnet (Sims). Some are paranoid for good reason, but a culture of paranoia and distrust can be toxic, making political progress difficult. If everyone in the system thinks everyone else is out to get them and recording conversations that will eventually be released to the press, the requisite level of trust may be difficult to achieve. “Selective leaking of accusations destroys reputations even if innocence is later confirmed” (The Economist Conviction). It may be difficult to know where to draw the line between material the public needs to be aware of, and material that can make headlines and enhance reputations.
Finally, the emergence of Doria and Bolsonaro is not the only indicator that the right is attempting to re-assert itself into Brazilian politics. Doria, with his business background is the mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city; and Rio de Janeiro, another hugely important city has a fundamentalist evangelical Christian as its mayor. These are not necessarily negative things, but these positions are too high profile for the fact that they both have right-leaning mayors to be insignificant. In the words of 23 year old Douglas Garcia, a pro-Bolsonaro activist, “before [the impeachment protests] it was inadmissible for you to position yourself as rightwing in Brazil – it was basically a swear word.” Corruption scandals and their ties to left-wing parties have opened the door for somewhat dormant rightists. Some on the right call for the military to step back into politics, and “Support for democracy fell from 54% in 2015 to 32% in 2016”, according to an annual survey (Phillips). Whether this means a departure from democracy or not, such a sea change will certainly mean bumpy roads ahead.
Brazilian politics has been dominated for some time by the leftist PT, and it seems that the pendulum may be swinging back to the right. This does not have to be a bad thing, but an over-correction too far to the right could cause serious problems. Be that as it may, further descent into chaos is not a foregone conclusion. There exist strong reasons for Brazilians to take heart. Better times may be coming.
Reasons for Hope
Just as there are emerging personalities in Brazilian politics that may give one pause as to whether things are headed in a positive direction, there are also a few people who may offer some reassurance. Both of the following examples are involved with the Brazilian judicial branch, pointing to the biggest reason for hope: Brazil’s judiciary is independent from its political system. If Lava Jato has taught us anything, it is this, and Sergio Moro and Edson Fachin are two of the best examples.
Fachin is a justice of the Brazilian Supreme Court who is overseeing the Petrobras corruption investigation. As we know, the list of politicians being investigated is significant, and it is offering reassurance to many Brazilians that the rampant political corruption can be called to account. In the past there was little in the way of consequences for corrupt politicians. Even when they were caught and convicted, often times their sentences would allow for them to keep large portions of their ill-gotten wealth. With Fachin in charge of this investigation, it appears that those days are numbered.
Moro, though himself a federal judge in the southern Parana state rather than a Supreme Court Justice, may be even more influential, and has certainly gained more notoriety, than Fachin. His name has become more or less synonymous with Lava Jato’s successes. He had convicted and sentenced more than 40 politicians and business executives, as of December, 2016 (Rotberg). He is also the judge that sentenced former President Lula to 10 years in prison for “illicit enrichment” related to a kickback he received, sowing major uncertainty into the impending presidential election (Onis). Moro’s reputation and popularity among the people is based on his penchant for showing previously privileged politicians no mercy by doing things such as speeding up their corruption trials thus keeping the allegations fresh in the minds of the people as the trials occur. He has also denied bail on many occasions to the offenders, forcing them to await trial in jail cells like normal Brazilians (Rotberg). This treatment of the previously untouchable old guard has won Moro points with the Brazilian people. In fact, as of May, 2017, he was the only Brazilian public figure with an approval rating over 50% (Winter).
Fachin and Moro are two examples of a judiciary that isn’t worried about getting its hands dirty politically. The separation of powers in Brazil is real and a reason for Brazilians to hope for better things from their political class in years to come. This has been fostered somewhat by the selection process of federal judges in Brazil, which differs from that of the United States. In Brazil, federal judgeships are not political appointments. Judges get their jobs, like most other civil servants in the country, solely by passing huge written exams, known as concursos. While there may be drawbacks to this system — it is questionable whether success on one exam is an accurate predictor of one’s ability to be an effective government worker — in the case of federal judges, this process mitigates the politicization of the judiciary. Federal judges are not appointed by politicians; they are simply people who scored extremely high on the concurso for the federal judiciary, perhaps making them less likely to be influenced by party politics. In 2007, the Supreme Court ruled that politicians who switch parties must give up their seats. In 2015 it outlawed corporate contributions to political campaigns. The judiciary is separate from, and independent of, the Brazilian political process, and it is exercising that independence with Lava Jato. Brazilians can take some measure of solace in this.
Lastly, the Brazilian people are in favor of their politicians being taken to task. As Brian Winter puts it, Brazil has a free press and a large working class that is ready to turn on its leaders. There are certainly economic factors involved, but an Ipsos poll in June, 2017 indicated that 90% of Brazilians want the investigations to continue even if it brings more economic instability and hardship (Lopes, June 19). It goes without saying that at this point it is very unlikely that the people will allow Lava Jato to be swept under the rug, no matter how hard some politicians may try. The full scope of the corruption has been made clear to the people by the volume and content of leaked recordings and other information (Sims). Public disgust with political corruption in Brazil is certainly not a new thing. It helped the military dictatorship hold onto power from the ‘60s to the ‘90s (Winter). However, it seems the protests have a different impetus this time around. They have public officials they can believe in. They have reason to believe that the system can be changed. They are seeing evidence of change taking place. There is a long road ahead, but better days very well may be on the horizon.
Neither the Brazilian economy nor its political system is what one might call stable or effective at the moment. There is chaos and difficulty at every turn, and people in the country are suffering from high prices, low wages, job loss and other symptoms characteristic of a sharp economic downturn. Their situation, however, is not irreversible. There are factors that lend Brazilians hope for the future. Its governmental institutions have not all been corrupted or rendered ineffectual by political scandal and intrigue. The story of Lava Jato may not end with Brazil achieving the economic success that seemed to be within reach in 2006, but the country is not without positive attributes. It has natural resources and a large, reasonably skilled workforce, but it will have to overcome its own history in order to move forward. It will have to show that it can elect politicians capable of diverging from “politics as usual," making difficult and unpopular decisions, and pushing the country forward. It will have to show that it can manage the considerable resources at its disposal in an efficient and sustainable way. And it will have to show that it can seriously tackle reform to its unrealistic pension program. All of these tasks are daunting and success is far from guaranteed, but they are possible. Will they ultimately come to fruition? At the risk of sounding like Agent Mulder from the TV show, “The X-Files,” I want to believe.
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