Brazil's Pocket Linings Playbook

How the Petrobras Scandal Shows the Country's Strength, Not Weakness

Demonstrators attend a protest calling for the impeachment of Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff at Paulista Avenue in Sao Paulo, Brazil, December 13, 2015.  Paulo Whitaker / Reuters

The future of Brazilian politics has rarely looked less promising. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was once praised for delivering the socioeconomic miracle that made Brazil the envy of the developing world, now finds himself at the center of a multibillion-dollar corruption scandal. Brazil’s state-owned oil conglomerate, Petrobras, is accused of giving out overpriced drilling contracts to construction and engineering firms. The subsequent investigation has implicated Brazil’s top politicians and economic elites, including both Lula and his successor, current Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. The scandal, critics say, could go as far as ending democracy in the country. All sides have called for a popular uprising against the nation’s elites.

The turmoil aside, the Petrobras scandal has provided Brazil with a rare opportunity to audit its government. The 1988 constitution established Brazil’s modern democratic structures and was designed to create a representative political system with no place for the endemic corruption that defined Brazilian politics in the past. Twenty-eight years later, however, Brazil still faces cronyism, political elitism, and a lack of accountability. But now there are reasons to believe that the government may finally listen to the will of the people and do something real to address its problems.


Although the Petrobras scandal seems unprecedented, neither Rousseff nor Lula is the first Brazilian president to face corruption allegations. Indeed, Fernando Collor de Mello, Brazil’s first democratically elected president during the nation’s post-dictatorship era, was impeached for corruption in 1992. But after Collor left office, Brazil’s economy stabilized under President Fernando Henrique Cardoso and the country achieved impressive social development under Lula, Cardoso’s successor.

Notwithstanding Brazil’s economic evolution, its politics haven’t changed. Political disorganization and widespread party patronage have plagued the system for 28 years. The 1988 constitution mandates proportional representation in the National Congress, for example, which has partially resulted in more than 30 political parties vying for power through shaky coalitions. Leadership positions are likewise distributed across multiple parties, and executive

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