Brazil’s Trump? Or a Fresh Start for a Corruption-weary Country? A Look at Brazil’s Election

By Andrew Hyman, Class of 2019

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On October 7th, Brazilians voted overwhelming for Jair Bolsonaro, leader of the Social Liberal Party (PSL). He got 46% of the total vote, just shy of the 50% needed to avoid a runoff, beating his closest challenger, Fernando Haddad of the Workers’ Party (PT), by 17 points. But this was no ordinary victory for an ordinary politician. Bolsonaro, a former military captain whose rhetoric in his early career was extreme, has made numerous comments that could be considered sexist and homophobic and in 1993 said in a speech to Brazil’s lower house, “Yes, I am in favor of a dictatorship! We will never resolve grave national problems with this irresponsible democracy!”.

Although Brazil has been seen as a rising economic power for decades, 95% of Brazilians feel their country is heading in the wrong direction which may help explain how this far-right figure - sometimes known as “Brazil’s Donald Trump” - finds himself just a week and a half away from a likely election victory? To understand all the factors in his rise, we have to dive into the Lava Jato (or Car Wash) scandal that led to one president’s impeachment, another’s imprisonment, and a corruption network that spread throughout Latin America.

The corruption at the core of Lava Jato is bribery. Investigators unearthed significant evidence that Petrobras, Brazil’s state-owned oil company, accepted bribes in exchange for awarding inflated contracts to Odebrecht, a major construction firm throughout South America. The money laundering associated with this scandal, thought to be on the scale of almost $10B, is believed to have stretched beyond Brazil, with evidence of bribery found in Argentina, Mexico, Panama, Peru, and Venezuela.

Former President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva (“Lula”), who governed Brazil from 2003 - 2011 as part of the PT, was a perennial candidate. Lula ran for president three times before his eventual election, during which time the PT was pronouncing its “revolutionary and socialist character”. In office Lula governed as a fairly moderate reformer, fighting hunger, encouraging school attendance, and delivering consistent economic growth in the face of external skepticism. But the Lava Jato investigation, which began by looking at money laundering and expanded into a criminal probe that has resulted in hundreds of indictments, led to multiple convictions and a twelve year jail sentence for corruption for Lula, leading to his being barred from running in this election. Yet he remains so popular that observers note he might have won the election had he been able to run while in prison.

Lava Jato also uncovered the extensive involvement of Lula’s successor, Dilma Rousseff. Rousseff began her career in politics as a leftist guerilla fighting the dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, eventually becoming involved in democratic politics and working her way up through the ranks to become Lula’s chief of staff from 2005 - 2010. Lula’s handpicked successor, she failed to win in the first round of elections, but secured the presidency in 2010 in the second round with 56% of the vote. While Rousseff remained popular throughout much of her first term, in 2013 mass protests broke out as people demanded better public services and less corruption.

These protests foreshadowed the trends that are propelling Bolsonaro to power. A recession and trouble in the credit markets almost sank Rousseff’s campaign, but the PT’s political machine (aided by money later discovered to have been stolen from Petrobras) helped her secure the narrowest electoral margin in Brazil’s modern electoral history. But the scandals piled up. Although her impeachment charges related to Lava Jato were dropped before prosecution, Rousseff was unable to save herself. In April 2016, she was impeached and removed from office for violating budgetary laws.

Replacing her was her Vice President, Michel Temer. Then, only two months after assuming the presidency, Temer was convicted of violating election laws and given an eight-year ban on running for office. The ban formally ended any hopes Temer had of running in the 2018 campaign, but his 7% approval rating would likely have limited his viability anyway.

As the second round of voting on October 28th  approaches, Bolsonaro looks likely to prevail. In early September he was the victim of a stabbing attack that left him wounded; he is currently expected to make a full recovery. The most recent polls show him with an eighteen-point lead over Haddad, making him likely to be the next in a line of right-wing leaders to come to power around the world. Bolsonaro’s supporters seemed energized at the prospect of his victory, although it is possible that Haddad will come from behind since Bolsonaro’s rhetoric has turned off large swathes of the Brazilian electorate; if Haddad can consolidate the non-Bolsonaro vote from the first round, he may be able to garner enough support to eke out a victory.

Should Bolsonaro win, should it be seen as an endorsement of right-wing populism in one of the world’s largest countries, or a sign of disgust over rampant and pervasive corruption? If he loses, is it because his wild rhetoric has undermined the people’s trust in him, or because a resurrected corrupt political machine is flexing its remaining muscle? In less than a week, while the world watches and waits, Brazil will vote.