Until last Sunday, when Brazilians voted in a pivotal election, corruption in Brazil was generally seen as an intrinsic part of the national character. As scholars Heloisa Starling and Lilia Schwarcz put it in a new book, a culture of corruption in the world’s fourth-largest democracy was considered “an unavoidable destiny.”
Yet after the shocking results of the Oct. 7 vote, that destiny is now in doubt.
Voters delivered a strong message to the traditional parties of the left, right, and center. They removed two-thirds of incumbents in Congress. And more than half of politicians charged with corruption, or who are being investigated, were not reelected, including the president of the Senate.
Voters also favored new or lesser political parties, many of which promised to end corruption and promote honest, transparent governance. Brazil’s lower house will now have the highest number of parties in Congress since democracy was restored in 1985.
In addition, voters all but ensured that a little-known legislator, Jair Bolsonaro, would be the next president. He took 46 percent of this first round of voting, handily beating a dozen other candidates in a campaign in which he relied largely on social media. Known as “Brazil’s Donald Trump” for his crude statements, Mr. Bolsonaro nonetheless promises zero tolerance of corruption.
In a runoff election on Oct. 28, the right-wing former Army captain will face off against a leftist candidate, Fernando Haddad, who garnered only 29 percent of the ballots last Sunday.
Brazil was primed for such an election upset. After anti-corruption protests broke out in 2013, the country’s prosecutors and judges were emboldened to go after the political elite, many of whom took bribes with impunity or laundered money taken from the state-run oil firm, Petrobras. Prosecutors were driven by a desire to instill a new culture in Brazil – equality before the law – and end the culture of impunity.
One probe in particular, called Lava Jato (Car Wash), has become the biggest corruption case in the world, felling dozens of elected leaders. In a scene that riveted the nation last April, former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, whose popularity was once 87 percent, was led off to prison for corruption.
One Brazilian columnist summed it up perfectly: “Lava Jato bomb explodes at the polls and sweeps almost everything in its path.” Brazilians used the election to reveal their hope for the kind of clean governance that reflects their values.
Perhaps the “destiny” of political corruption in Latin America’s biggest country may not be “unavoidable” after all.