A few years ago, Brazil seemed poised to finally live up to its potential as the country of the future. Rapid economic growth, combined with innovative social policies, had lifted millions out of poverty and the country was emerging as a major international power. This seems like a lifetime away from the current situation.
Democratically elected president Dilma Rousseff was impeached in 2016 through a process labelled a “soft coup” by some; her replacement, Michel Temer, has an approval rating of about 3%. The economy is not doing much better: growth is sluggish and unemployment is at record levels. Brazil is due to have elections in October but with the frontrunner, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, in prison, the fate of Brazil’s democracy is in balance.
From 2002 to 2016, the centre-left Workers’ Party (PT) government had embraced a type of weak reformism, in which it adhered to macroeconomic orthodoxy while using the boons of a booming economy in favour of the poor by raising minimum wages, introducing conditional cash transfer welfare programmes and bringing infrastructure to the most impoverished regions.
The PT’s time in power saw a historic broadening of social citizenship in a country still defined by its legacies of violence, racism and inequality, much like South Africa’s. Once described by former United States president Barack Obama as “the man”, Lula left office with an approval rating of 84% and the respect of the international community.
At the time of writing, Lula is still in prison after being sentenced to 12 years for supposedly irregularly receiving $1.2‑million worth of improvements to one of a properties from a construction company.
Other leading politicians facing corruption charges — including Temer and Aécio Neves, the 2014 presidential candidate for the misleadingly named centre-right Brazilian Social Democracy Party (PSDB) — remain free. Despite being forbidden from speaking to the public from behind bars, Lula is easily the most popular politician in the country.
In the two years since Rousseff’s impeachment, malaises such as mass hunger have returned. Political violence is also on the rise, with more than 60 activists having been murdered so far this year, most notably Rio socialist city councillor Marielle Franco. If that weren’t enough, Brazil suffers staggering levels of violence — more than 60 000 Brazilians were murdered last year.
Key to this disaster has been Operation Lava Jato (Car Wash), the largest corruption investigation in Brazilian history. Involving billions of dollars and implicating leading businesspeople and virtually the entirety of Brazil’s political class, the investigation centred on the relationship between Petrobras (the state oil company) and construction behemoth Odebrecht.
Operation Lava Jato turned the presiding judge, Sérgio Moro, into an international anticorruption superstar. But South Africans shouldn’t mistake this for a victory against corruption; our own experience with former president Jacob Zuma and a certain Indian business family shouldn’t cloud our judgment.
Lava Jato’s critics argue that the probe has targeted figures associated with the PT party in conjunction with a media landscape that is dominated by TV network Rede Globe, Brazil’s answer to Fox News, and a faction of big business hostile to the PT. The leading politicians of Brazil’s centre-right — particularly the PSDB — remain free and the corrupt political machinery that dominates Brazilian politics is still intact.
Corruption involves more than simply the deeds of bad men seduced by power; it is product of structural inequality and institutional arrangements. In this case, the Brazilian political system incentivises corruption by giving extra weight to the regions of the country governed by corrupt political bosses. This forces any government coming to power to distribute favours through public spending and other illicit transactions in order to govern. Most political parties, regardless of what ideology they claim, amount to little more than loose political associations formed to extract rents.
For instance, the party currently in government — the Brazilian Democratic Movement (MDB), formerly the official opposition party permitted by the military dictatorship — exists purely as a vessel to capture rents for myriad political groupings, from big-city machines to rural lords governing their fiefdoms through a combination of the favour and the bullet. The MDB wields power by eliciting support in return for Cabinet posts and public funds.
Temer came to power because the PT had appointed him vice-president through one of these backroom alliances. Rousseff took the blame for the economic crisis that hit the country in 2013 and, following daily headlines relating to Lava Jato and the PT’s corruption, major anti-corruption protests led to her removal.
But she was not impeached for corruption. In fact, Rousseff, regardless of her other political failings, is that rare Brazilian politician who does not have corruption charges lurking over her head.
She was impeached for “crimes of responsibility”, after using creative accounting to disguise budget deficits ito pay for social programmes, a common practice used by all Brazilian governments. The result was an absurd spectacle of corrupt right-wing politicians voting to impeach her for corruption.
Temer’s government moved quickly to enact what has been called the harshest austerity programme in the world, passing a constitutional amendment that effectively freezes government spending for 20 years, slashing healthcare and education budgets, and eradicating labour protections.
In a desperate political move, Temer deployed the military in Rio but this has had minimal effect on crime — and violence has actually increased since the intervention began.
In this climate, an anti-political mood has taken hold: more than 40% of Brazilians intend to cast a blank ballot or haven’t made their minds up going in to the elections.
Apart from Lula, Jair Bolsonaro, a far-right demagogue, is leading the polls. A former army captain and congressman from Rio de Janeiro, Bolsonaro’s “policies” include open calls for military dictatorship, arming all responsible citizens, and the mass slaughter of suspected criminals. Bolsonaro has so far been able to ride on both the anti-establishment mood and the right-wing fury summoned during the impeachment, but he lacks the political machine and the allies necessary to navigate Brazilian politics.
The centre-left field is divided: in Lula’s absence, the leading candidate is Ciro Gomes of the Democratic Labour Party, a former finance minister.
But the PT remains the largest political party in Brazil. It not only retains a base among trade unions, social movements and the poor but also has a trump card in Lula, its anointed candidate — even though he will almost certainly be unable to compete in the elections. The most likely scenario will see him endorse another candidate, which might prove enough for the centre-left to triumph.
The centre-right establishment faces an uphill battle too. The PSDB’s candidate is Geraldo Alckmin, a former São Paulo governor. Although he has solidified alliances with powerful rural landowners and big business, the electorate’s anti-establishment mood does not bode well for his prospects.
The prospects are bleak for Brazil and October’s election marks the greatest challenge for the country’s democracy since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985.
Currently based in São Paulo, Benjamin Fogel is a PhD candidate in Latin American history at New York University and is a contributing editor for Jacobin magazine and Africa is a Country