In 2014, the roof fell over Brazil’s head as Operation Car Wash (Operação Lava Jato) began to unfold. What began as an investigation into money laundering soon uncovered what we today know to be one of the biggest corruption scandals in world history. As the list of suspects and accused grew to account for almost one third of Brazil’s cabinet between 2014 and 2017, voters soon discovered an unsurmountable web of corruption spanning the expanse of Brazilian politics. The result: Brazilians’ trust in government plummeted, opening doors for extreme polarization and a slew of uncertainty ahead of this year’s presidential elections in October. Though far more complex than many realize, the issue of corruption is one very prominent reason discouraging many Brazilians from considering more centrist, pragmatic candidates for the presidency. Polls show the majority of voters plan to back far-right former Army captain Jair Bolsonaro or far-left Workers’ Party candidate Fernando Haddad in the first round of elections. Many more consider the two candidates to be a bad and a worse option.
Corruption Scandals Pave Way for Uncertainty, Dread Ahead of Elections
A recent poll cited by The Economist in its recent cover story indicated Brazilians sum up their country using three words: “corruption,” “shame,” and “disappointment.” Speak to most Brazilians on the street and they will tell you any politician is not to be trusted; they will tell you they want to see a new chapter for Brazil, one without corruption; they will tell you they are willing to vote into office a candidate with little to no public service or management experience as long as he is not affiliated with Brazil’s major political parties.
For many Brazilians, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former president from 2003 to 2011, and consequently the left, has become a symbol for the country’s woes and for the scandals that emerged. Lula, as he is commonly called, was arrested and convicted for accepting bribes in the form of an apartment complex from construction company OAS. Beloved by many Brazilians despite the arrest, Lula is also detested by many who see him as an establishment politician representing the many political actors now embroiled in investigations.
This dismay for the political establishment has manifested itself in a hyper-polarized election, with the extreme left and extreme right vying for the country’s highest office. Jair Bolsonaro, a former Army captain, is the current front-runner, with 33 points, followed closely by Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, who was initially the vice-presidential candidate on Lula’s ticket, at 24 points. The two are most likely to come out on top from the October 7 first round and go head to head on October 28.
Extreme Polarization Leads to Uncertain Vote
The high rejection of the left, particularly Lula’s Workers Party (PT), has opened doors to more extreme right-wing candidates that would not have so readily been considered only a few years ago. Jair Bolsonaro, despite his 30 years in Congress, is seen by many Brazilians as the ideal choice for never having been embroiled in corruption investigations or allegations. To Brazilians desperate for a better sense of security, the apparently heavy-handed and controversial Bolsonaro presents himself as the only candidate able to solve the country’s problems, despite his highly conservative statements on gender, race, and LGBTQ rights.
Bolsonaro, who has often been compared to President Donald Trump, has seized on the fear and disgust Brazilians began to feel toward political elites and established political parties following Lava Jato. The contender openly supports a return to Brazil’s dictatorship days, and has asserted he would not accept election results that did not put him as the victor. His firebrand rhetoric poses a danger to Brazil’s democratic processes and institutions.
On the other side of the spectrum, Fernando Haddad’s affiliation with the Workers’ Party and his close relationship with Lula make him a viable option for those who intended on giving their vote to the former president. For many, the corruption grounds on which Lula was convicted do not overshadow the benefits his social programs allotted them – Lula’s Bolsa Familia cash transfer program, for one, brought scores of Brazilians out of poverty, at least for a time.
But Haddad and the left are also the embodiment of the country’s biggest problems. With Lula affiliated with Lava Jato and ‘business as usual,’ voters are hard pressed to reject the PT in exchange for someone they do not entirely agree with.
Partisanship Aside, Brazil Will Need to Make Real Progress on Corruption
Partisanship aside, the next Brazilian administration will have to tackle corruption head on if they hope to move Brazil forward. The incoming government will have to contribute to addressing at least three key issue areas under the corruption umbrella: electoral reform, judiciary independence, and compliance.
Brazil’s political system depends highly on coalitions of political parties. With over 30 political parties established in the country, coalition-building is a means to achieve common objectives through the formation of alliances or agreements that necessarily lead to majorities in Congress. This practice in turn leads to the nomination of congress members from coalitions, which creates partisan fragmentation in Congress. The next administration will face challenges in reforming electoral realities to transform Congress into a more efficient and less fragmented body.
Judicial independence and efficiency is yet another component that will need to be strengthened as Brazil progresses on anti-corruption efforts. While many Brazilians win their court cases, many do not receive the payments ordered by the court. Yet other cases can take decades to conclude. This creates a distrust in Brazil’s judiciary.
Lastly, leaders will have to work toward a more transparent public procurement system. The next administration, in collaboration with the private sector and civil society, can do more to foster insight into the bidding process for government projects. Groups like the Observ Institute, an independent, nonprofit organization, are already mobilizing to monitor public bidding. More must be done under the next presidential mandate.
October will open with one of the most polarized and controversial elections in Brazil’s recent history. In large part a reaction to the corruption scandals that have plagued Brazil in recent years, voters are predicted to head to the polls ready to vote into office a candidate representative of the poles – the far right or the far left. But no matter who emerges as Brazil’s next president, Brazilians will look for real reform under the new leadership. The incoming administration must prioritize real solutions to corruption if they hope to regain the public’s trust, and to guide Brazil toward a more prosperous and sustainable future.