How corruption is weakening democracy in Brazil

Since its first post-military, democratic elections in 1985, Brazil has had six presidential elections, four elected presidents, and three political parties rotating at the presidency. For some, Brazil was able to build a stunning successful democratic regime.

Though the interpretation of the regime is indeed positive, corruption has hunted the country since its re-democratization. Sure, each government era has had its share of scandals, but not like since 2005, when three major corruption scandals erupted.

The Mensalão scandal, exposé in 2005, was a vote-scheme of clandestine payments to congressional allies in return for legislative agenda support. The trial ended on March 2014 with 25 people convicted for the crimes of bribery, money laundering and conspiracy.

The on-going Lava Jato Operation started on the same March 2014 to investigate a money-laundering scheme inside Petrobras involving high-profile politicians and a cartel of contractors. It’s estimated the kickbacks may total around 4 billion reais.

Initiated in 2013, but only announced to the public on March this year, Operação Zelotes is a federal investigation into a corruption scandal involving more than 70 companies suspected of bribing government tax agency officials from Brazil’s Administrative Council of Tax Appeals (CARF), specialized in adjudicating tax disputes. The scheme may have cost the state as much as 6 billion reais so far.

Failure to eradicate or reduce corruption is hitting hard the country’s democracy. That’s because the type of corruption seen in Brazil today goes beyond the individual acts of illegality based on rule and law breaking at the administrative level.

It’s about an institutional-structural level type of corruption that violates key principles of democracy. Here, the democratic political system is destructively affected by major disruptions such as the collapse of political processes or abrupt turns in political powers. A political group enjoying little political competition in an environment lacking good governance principles ends up dominating and manipulating the democratic process for economic and political gains[1]. The democratic process is weakened and the institutions at core of it fail to accomplish one of their main purposes: the representation of the public interests.

This type of corruption takes a holistic form where politics, the public and private sectors are interconnected via a highly sophisticated system of extortions, payoffs, and bribes[2]. In the end, institutional-structural reaches into the democratic rule of law affecting fundamental rights as political participation and civil liberties[3]. Eventually, citizens feel powerless before such political, social and economic inequality and moral degradation and distrust start to spread out into the whole society.

The Mensalão, Lava Jato and Zelote cases are example of how the institutional-structural corruption uses the common good such as public companies and political institutions as instruments for economic and political benefits. Will Brazil ever be able to eliminate this pyramidal structure of clientelism, institutionalized patronage, and impunity? For some, only a deep political reform could help the country change this unfortunate situation. In any case, the solution to an institutional-structural corruption relies on a governance structure that approaches corruption from a systemic viewpoint. This will be crucial to introduce reforms that bring corruption to a halt and create a democratic system that works for the entire society.

[1] Public Officials, Private Interests, and Sustainable Democracy: When Politics and Corruption Meet (1997) by Michael Johnston. In Corruption and the Global Economy, Institute for International Economics, pp. 61–82.

[2] From ‘Institutional’ to ‘Structural’ Corruption: Rethinking Accountability in a World of Public-Private Partnerships (2013) By Irma Sandoval-Ballesteros. Edmond J. Safra Working Papers, No. 33, Harvard University.

[3] Why the Rule of Law Matters (2004) by Guillermo A. O’Donnell. Journal of Democracy 15 (4): 32–46