Democracy and Corruption in Brazil

By Ian Elliott

Lula da Silva

Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2007, copyright World Economic Forum

The year is 2010. Jim O’Neill, then chairman of Goldman Sacs, has just claimed that President Lula da Silva is the “most successful G20 policy maker of the last decade.” Brazil has recently hosted a slew of major world leaders all interested in the nation’s resounding economic success. President Lula da Silva is preparing to leave office and to pass off power to his emerging protégé Dilma Rouseff. His popularity sits at 80% in Brazil, which is an astounding decline from his staggering earlier rate of 87%. In 2018, the former president now sits in jail convicted of corruption. His popularity may not be what it once was and his influence certainly is not what it was in 2010. However, da Silva remains a uniquely powerful and popular figure in Brazilian political culture. He has led the current presidential race since he entered it and has continued to lead it even after his arrest. His rise and fall seem equally improbable and his future entirely unknowable.

Mr. da Silva’s conviction and trial have been profoundly polarizing and controversial within Brazilian politics. In 2014, prosecutors began to investigate Mr. da Silva in an incredibly convoluted kickback scheme that involved the nation’s largest construction firm, the state-run oil company, and a car wash. The whole scheme became known as Lava Jato or “Car Wash”. It was in this series of investigations that Lula’s successor Dilma Rousseff was impeached, and Mr. da Silva found himself convicted of corruption-related charges and sentenced to 12 years in prison.

The trial and impeachment have been met with consistent accusations of being politically motivated. Lula da Silva was convicted without any material evidence of the corruption allegations; the case was based mostly on the testimony of a single construction company executive who, in return, received a significant commutation for his sentence. Furthermore, da Silva’s right to habeas corpus was waived for the duration of the case. These two facts alone do not prove the former president’s innocence nor that the trial was politically motivated, but they do provide powerful ammunition for the detractors. The court’s decision to suspend his freedom took him away from the presidential campaign. Initially, Mr. da Silva resisted his sentence. Although the standoff lasted only a day, it did provide a deliberate show of disobedience and rallied a great deal of support for the former president.

Lula da Silva currently sits in jail, convicted of one crime and the defendant in five other cases. However, his presidency campaign remains legal under Brazilian law. In fact, more than half of the Brazilian population believe he should still be allowed to run for president (his party and its base back him and he still leads presidential polling). Thus, Mr. da Silva remains popular and is in a uniquely powerful position despite his lack of freedom. He can choose to either continue to pursue presidency and even manage to be elected, or he could try to play kingmaker for another candidate.

If he does decide to continue to run, there seems to be little chance he could stay in office for any significant amount of time. The Supreme Court can decide to disqualify candidates between August 15th and September 17th, if it were to disqualify Mr. da Silva during this period, to which he would most likely appeal and further extend the process. If he were to survive to the October election, his convictions and legal battles would eventually catch up and all the votes for him would be nullified by Brazil’s “clean slate law.”  Alternatively, Lula could decide to endorse another candidate and throw his significant support for another left leaning contender. The problem, however, is that there have been no clear candidates from Lula’s own Workers’ Party. He could hope that his support alone would elevate another individual to become a contender, but this is highly risky, and could lead to a fractured and struggling left. Lula could also direct his party to support for a candidate from another party. This would however diminish the power of the party and the movement that Lula had already built.

The United States has maintained a friendly relationship with Brazil, which has become both a major regional player and an emerging global influence. President Lula da Silva’s Brazil in particular was extraordinary in that it was able to maintain friendly ties with both George W. Bush’s administration and Hugo Chavez’s Venezuela. It is crucial to maintain this relationship regardless of the outcome of the election, and Mr. da Silva’s eventual decision to turn himself in was a major step toward stability. His more hardcore supporters had advocated for a protracted resistance, a move that could have destabilized the entire nation.

It is crucial that the United States assume a hard stance of neutrality while maintaining democracy. The United States must resist the temptation to encourage undemocratic moves. For instance, Mr. da Silva could decide to throw his party’s support behind leftist political candidates like Guilherme Boulos from the Socialism and Liberty Party or Manuela d’Ávila of the Communist Party of Brazil, both of whom would be minor candidates without Mr. da Silva’s support, but with it could become major contenders.

Brazil’s current political climate is deeply divided and is reaching a tipping point. Politically motivated judicial decisions, or even the perception of such decisions, could serve to severely undermine the nation’s faith in the democratic process. Brazil is not a nation unfamiliar with dictatorship or illiberalism. It is thus crucial that it not depend on these outcomes and that the United States ensure neutrality toward the fierce political infighting that will occur in the coming months, while exerting pressure on and providing support for the new administration in retaining stability and in reigning in corruption.








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