The Fight Against Corruption in Brazil is Working, But at a Cost

In yet the latest turn of events, Brazil’s Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva – golden boy of the Workers’ Party (PT) who presided over Brazil during a commodity boom that made Brazil’s new middle class – has been sentenced to ten years of imprisonment for bribery. That fall of Lula – as he is warmly called in Brazil – is effectively the fall of the PT.

Having barred Lula from the run for presidency next year, a political vacuum has opened in Brazil. No doubt, we can say that the high court’s battle against corruption Brazil is working. Sadly, however, clamping down on graft, bribery, and cronyism does not occur in an empty void, and having lost its political elites, the Brazilian political system has become particularly exposed and vulnerable.

No Leaders in Brazil

When Operation Car Wash began more than three years ago, there was little way to foresee the wide-reaching impact that the investigation would have on the country’s political system. No doubt, it is well known not that corruption is a mundane and familiar problem in Brazil – if not all of Latin America. One would have been hard pressed to take seriously the procedures of an investigative court  that targets something so common, so generalized in its occurrence.

However, three years after the investigation began, we can hardly say that Brazil looks the same. Indeed, what has been most startling is the reconfiguration of the political map that now appears leaderless.

Remarkably, the overwhelming majority of politicians currently involved in Brazil’s congress are under federal investigation. Temer himself has dodged repeated bullets and is hardly out of the crosshairs. Whatever respite he has gained is only temporary and fleeting – a number of his ministers were announced to be under investigation in April and Geddel Vieira Lima – one of his closest allies and former minister for legislative affairs – was arrested earlier this month. Meanwhile, Aéio Neves da Cunha of the Brazilian Social Democratic Party and former presidential hopeful for 2014, has also been targeted, as well as the PSDB’s Geraldo Alckmin, who was set to run for president in 2018.

With the Democratic Movement Party, the Social Democrats, and the Workers’ Party all leaderless in the next year’s election cycle, those on the political fringe have a newfound, and unexpected chance.

An Opening Like No Other

With Lula out of the picture and the leaders of all of Brazil’s most prominent parties in more or less severe legal trouble, a political opening has been created unlike any other. In the latest polls released prior to the announcement of Lula’s sentence, two candidates stood behind Lula in the polls: Marina Silva, member of the Green Party and former minister under Lula, and Jair Bolsonaro of the Social Christian party.

The conjuncture of history is open in Brazil, and with a citizenry that hardly has any faith in the government, it may be that something monstrous enters the stage. If the PT, which was once the outsider party, made-up of democratic grassroots initiatives has revealed itself to be a farce, there are little options in Brazil to express this newfound anger and distrust in the political establishment in a constructive, progressive way. This problem is expressed in a lack of public confidence in most institutions. It is the strongest, most disciplinary branches of the government that are currently the most backed by the public: the judiciary and the military.

And this is why Jair Bolsonaro seems to line up with a more of a mood than an actual program that mobilizes against the disorder and bribery that the liberal government has come to be associated with in Brazil, and stands instead for law and order. For years he has spoken of his desire to allow the military a voice in matters of the state. A populist stand that seems to fit well in our political times. Now that liberal government in Brazil has been shown to fail, it may be that he mobilizes a right-wing populist intervention. Of course, this would not be through means of militaristic intervention. Rather, he would use the disillusionment that has been fostered by the PT in order gain access to the presidency through means of democratic vote.

It is in such crises of authority that democracy is threatened by a Caesar-complex. If the people themselves cannot come up with a solution to the given historical crisis and calls of calm and patience only fuel popular unrest, then an opening stands for a sovereign-like figure to seize the moment – be they progressive (Napoleon or Tito) or conservative (Mussolini, Hitler, or Trump). If public confidence continues to erode and popular unrest continues, that danger is only heightened. Centrist attempts to reign in control (like the force that Mariana Silva represents) often fail (see von Hindenburg and Clinton). This is not to say that history is mechanical of course – rather, this is merely an observation of dangerous weather conditions brewing in Brazil.

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