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This October, Brazilians will go to the polls to elect a new president, and the country could become the next democracy to fall in the populist wave that has been sweeping the globe. Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right nationalist member of Congress known for making racist and chauvinistic comments, is currently leading in many polls and may very well win a second-round runoff.
At first glance, it may seem strange that a country once hailed as one of the most inclusive democracies in the developing world could elect a president who has openly attacked the rights of gay people, women, and Afro-Brazilians and who has been an apologist for military dictatorship and torture. Yet Bolsonaro’s rise makes sense when one considers the backdrop of Brazil’s culture of political corruption. After watching politicians of nearly every mainstream party be caught in corruption scandals, Brazilian voters are willing to rebel against a dysfunctional system. Unlike the traditional elites, Bolsonaro built an innovative campaign based on heavy use of social media and grassroots work to promote himself as an outsider to this system.
Whether or not Bolsonaro ends up winning, the fact remains that a broader transformation in Brazilian politics is under way. The country’s traditional centrist establishment that has ruled since the transition from military dictatorship in the 1980s is in decline. For now, Brazil appears to be headed for another lost decade, but with the right reforms the country could build a more transparent political system that would deliver effective governance for its citizens.
For decades, the generation of leaders that oversaw the transition from military dictatorship dominated Brazilian politics. But the establishment of democracy was not about sweeping aside the corrupt institutional landscape that had been created by the dictatorship. Rather, it was an exercise in reconciling popular demand for political openness while upholding the benefits of vested interest groups that had flourished under military rule. Although the 1988 constitution provided for universal suffrage for the first time in Brazil’s history, it also gave politicians a way to game the system. Permissive regulations allowed incumbents to use the powers of office to raise money in corruption schemes and use the funds in lavish political campaigns and vote-buying. For decades, lax corruption regulation and permissive campaign finance rules allowed them to do so with impunity, making deals with private companies to award lucrative government contracts in exchange for campaign resources.
To work properly, this system required close collaboration between the legislative and the executive branches. Presidents in Brazil control the government machine that makes corrupt deals possible, and for decades have used them to manipulate Congress by strategically distributing opportunities for corruption to gain political support. The result is that government policies have been designed not to provide effective public services but to facilitate rent-seeking and corruption opportunities for politicians and well-connected groups.
This arrangement had been stable for decades, but cracks began to appear with the Operation Car Wash investigation, in which prosecutors uncovered a vast criminal network dedicated to laundering the proceeds of corrupt deals between politicians and construction companies. Politicians used their power and influence to nominate cronies to high-level positions in state-owned companies. They in turn would later work to award lucrative contracts to private groups who paid large fees under the table for the privilege. Disgusted by the revelations, voters now seek to elect a president who has no ties to this way of doing politics and who can make a credible commitment to fight against it.
Virtually every presidential candidate paid lip service to tackling corruption, but Bolsonaro was the first to understand that he could use his reputation as an outsider to his advantage. When protesters took to the streets to demand the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff, Bolsonaro joined the crowds. When Congress voted on impeachment, Bolsonaro made a speech arguing that the military dictatorship that existed in Brazil from 1964 to 1985 had been free of corruption. After Rousseff left office, he refused to support the new government and spent his time traveling the country and offering seemingly easy solutions to problems of crime and drugs, while claiming publicly to be the only politician in Congress who had not participated in corrupt deals.
With the revelations from Operation Car Wash, the cost of alliances between presidential hopefuls and traditional political forces is going up.
Meanwhile, other presidential candidates returned to the traditional campaign strategies known to have worked before. Some, such as Brazilian Social Democarcy Party candidate Geraldo Alckmin, built alliances with regional party leaders, seeking the financial resources that they could offer. Others, such as Sustainability Party candidate Marina Silva, attempted to shift the debate away from how to fix Brazil’s broken political system by pointing to Bolsonaro’s radicalism. Yet such tactics only made him more popular. By taking advantage of social media, he succeeded in using attacks to further legitimize himself as the antiestablishment candidate fighting against a corrupt elite.
With the revelations from Operation Car Wash, the cost of alliances between presidential hopefuls and traditional political forces is going up. Presidents will no longer be able to use their control over government to buy the support of the political class. As a result, politics in Brazil will become more conflictual and polarized.
There is no easy way out of Brazil’s current predicament. The road ahead will necessarily involve reforms to bring about a new way of doing politics. Brazilians must work to reform Congress and make it more accountable. Unlike presidents, legislators are still insulated by a flawed open-list proportional voting system, which impedes the rise of programmatic parties. Current voting rules make campaigning for Congress expensive, force candidates to compete with colleagues of the same party, and exacerbate fragmentation—there are currently 25 parties represented in Brazil’s legislature.
To improve accountability, Brazilians should change the electoral system by making at least half of the seats in the legislature elected by majoritarian vote and by drastically reducing the size of the districts used for proportional representation. This would strengthen parties, reduce fragmentation, reduce the financial costs of campaigning, and improve voters’ ability to monitor their representatives.
Bolsonaro has seized the opportunity created by Operation Car Wash masterfully. Yet it is unlikely that he will be able to deliver on the reforms that Brazil’s political system so desperately needs. He is weaving a web of promises and hope that will end in further frustration and disenchantment with the political system. If a reform-driven agenda does emerge, it will most likely result from pressure from civil society and anti-corruption activists. Without meaningful reform of the political system, Brazil appears to be headed for another lost decade, much like the one that existed in the 1980s after Latin America’s debt crisis.
But this crisis also represents an opportunity for reformers to promote a positive agenda, based on strengthening democratic institutions and promoting accountability. Brazilians are ready to move on from the perverse political practices of the past. With the right reforms, Brazil’s democracy could take a different path, delivering much-needed public goods and a route back to economic growth. Real change will come from outside the political establishment. Advocates for reform should seize the moment.