Far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro has picked a general to be his running mate in the upcoming Brazilian election. As a former captain in the army, Bolsonaro chose reserve general Hamilton Mourao of the conservative Brazilian Labor Party to join him on the ticket. Bolsonaro has had difficulty finding a running mate, as other politicians distanced themselves due to controversial statements he has made, included defending past military dictatorships and suggesting acts of violence against LGBTQ+ people. His running mate, Mourao, also generated controversy when he seemed to endorse the possibility of a military takeover of the Brazilian government to crack down on corruption, saying: “Either the courts remove those involved in illicit acts from the public service, or the army will.” After Mourao’s statement last year, Bolsonaro minimized the issue, claiming that “It was just a warning. Nobody wants to seize power that way. Maybe we could have a military man winning in 2018, but through elections.” Bolsonaro has stated he intends to appoint military officials to run his cabinet if he wins the presidency.
Bolsonaro and Mourao’s campaign platform, which is centered on aggressive actions to crack down on corruption and crime, highlight the other option in the election. Brazilian voters could face a choice between the military and a corrupt official. Bolsonaro is currently second in the polls to former president Luiz Ignacio “Lula” da Silva, who was convicted on corruption charges for taking an apartment as a bribe from Brazilian company OAS, and has been jailed since April. It is unlikely Lula will appear on the ticket, as Brazilian law bars those convicted of a crime from running for office for 8 years. However, if Lula’s conviction is not overturned in time for the election, his running mate Fernando Haddad, former mayor of São Paulo, will likely run for president with Manuela D’Avila of Brazil’s Communist Party as his running mate.
Even though Lula is unlikely to appear on the ticket and a military coup seems improbable, the upcoming election underscores two problems central to Brazil’s political system: corruption and the military. Brazil’s corruption, like much of Latin America, is pervasive. Brazil was ranked 96 of 180 countries on Transparency International’s corruption index last year, and since 2014, 150 business leaders and politicians have been arrested or prosecuted as part of an anti-corruption operation. Notably, former Brazilian president Dilma Rousseff, hand-picked by Lula, was impeached in 2016 and removed from office for corruption and breaking budget laws. Her successor, Michel Temer, was also nearly impeached for illegal campaign spending, but ultimately saved by a 4-3 Supreme Court decision. Since then, he has enjoyed record-breaking levels of public disapproval over bribery accusations, which the Brazilian Congress has yet to act on. Various polls put his approval rating between 2 and 7 percent, with 81 percent of the population supporting an indictment.
Mourao and Bolsonaro’s military-leaning campaign is not an isolated phenomenon either. Broadly speaking, former and current members of the military are becoming more active in the political system, mostly in a supposed attempt to rescue Brazil from high crime rates and political corruption. More than 90 military veterans are running for a variety of political positions in the upcoming elections. Multiple military officials, similar to Mourao, hinted that a failure to elect an anti-corruption president could result in the military intervening in politics. However, Brazil’s history with military rule isn’t pretty – the 21 year military dictatorship that ended in 1985 tortured and beat suspected political dissidents, and a 2014 Truth Commission report found that at least 434 people disappeared or were killed during military rule. This, combined with Brazil’s failure to prosecute those responsible for the human rights abuses that occurred during the dictatorship, has some observers worried. Carlos Fico, a historian at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, warned that “The eventual election of these military officials may lead to the adoption of authoritarian proposals, especially when it comes to public security.”
Attempts to constrain the military in Brazil have varied in effectiveness. Like most of Latin America, bringing the military under civilian control in the post-dictatorship era marked an important step in the right direction, and Brazil’s democracy has been relatively stable compared to the rest of the region since the end of the military dictatorship. Perhaps most strikingly, former president Dilma Rousseff was a member of a guerilla group that fought against military rule. However, like many other Latin American nations, the transition of power between the authoritarian military government and democratic elections included amnesty provisions for human rights abuses committed by the military during the dictatorship. In other countries in the region like Argentina, amnesty provisions have been repealed, but they still remain in Brazil. As a result, concerns over the military’s increasing involvement in politics are not unfounded – some of the people who directly or indirectly participated in authoritarian rule are still influential, and have not been prosecuted for their crimes.
Brazil has recently made progress against corruption. As part of Operation Car Wash, which started as an investigation into the state-owned oil company Petrobras, hundreds of millions of dollars of bribes, kickbacks, and money laundering have been uncovered, spanning multiple countries. The investigation also discovered corruption in the construction giant Odebrecht and meatpacking firm JBS, resulting in upwards of 180 prosecutions of various government and business officials. Additionally, a 2014 law holds companies liable for the corrupt practices of employees. Despite this, the problem has not been solved. Broadly speaking, corruption at all levels of government is still common. However, Brazil still ranks low on international corruption indices, and historically, there has been a lack of investigation and prosecution for corruption, making it difficult to gauge how deep the rabbit hole goes.
Fixing Brazil’s problems isn’t easy. In the short run, Brazil needs to avoid the temptation to vote for right-wing military candidates as a quick-fix solution to the systemic problem of corruption, lest the country experience democratic backsliding. The willingness of various military officials to contemplate working outside the law to fix the corruption problem is worrying, but also reveals a better long term strategy to address both the military’s involvement in politics and corruption: A renewed focus on upholding the rule of law.
In the context of the military, a commitment to the rule of law would mean overturning amnesty provisions and giving prosecutors the go-ahead to put military officials on trial for gross human rights abuses during the military dictatorship. In the context of corruption, Operation Car Wash should be expanded so that it can uncover additional cases of corruption. Additionally, new laws should be enacted to ensure prosecution is more possible. Currently, only Brazil’s Supreme Court is able to prosecute federal legislators, which has resulted in a huge backlog of cases, and a 1% conviction rate for legislators brought before the court for corruption. Additionally, 30% of those trials had been on the Supreme Court’s docket for over ten years. Even after convictions, the appeals process can delay a final resolution, and statutes of limitation can exclude important evidence when the court is so backed up. To address these challenges, laws need to be changed so that lower courts can prosecute federal officials, the appeals process needs to be streamlined, and the statute of limitations should be extended. In particular, allowing lower courts to prosecute officials would easily clear the Supreme Court’s backlog, which has magnified all other barriers to fighting corruption. By eliminating these hurdles to prosecuting corruption, the problem will be significantly mitigated on two fronts. First, existing corrupt politicians will be purged from the political system and barred from running for office under existing Brazilian law, and corrupt corporations will face massive penalties. Second, and more importantly, the higher risk of prosecution will reduce incentives to engage in corruption in the future, as the potential costs of corruption will have increased significantly. Furthermore, in addition to aiding prosecutors and strengthening the rule of law, Brazil can fight the causes of corruption by changing electoral laws so that campaigns are not so expensive that taking bribes is the most effective way to finance a winning campaign.
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