Brazil is currently reeling from the revelations that its Justice Minister, Sergio Moro, secretly directed the prosecutors’ media strategy whilst he served as a judge in the corruption case that made Brazilian history and paved the way for the rise of Bolsonaro; operation Car Wash. Called ‘the biggest corruption scandal in history’ by The Guardian, operation Car Wash began in 2015 as a money laundering investigation, but soon exposed an unprecedented level of corruption within the Brazilian government and the state-owned oil company, Petrobras.
Operation Car Wash has largely been credited with bringing down an entire government, resulting in the imprisonment of populist former President, Lula da Silva, the impeachment of his successor, Dilma Rousseff, both in 2018, and the arrest of her successor, Michel Temer in 2019.
The allegations went to the very core of the PT, the Workers’ Party that both Lula and Rousseff belong to, and decimated the public’s trust in a left-wing political organisation that was once globally lauded for helping to lift millions of impoverished Brazilians out of the very worst living conditions.
The least worst option
At the same time, far right candidate Jair Bolsonaro launched his Presidential campaign under the Social Liberal Party in 2018, winning 55% of the votes in a county where voting is mandatory by law.
Many attribute Bolsonaro’s win to his strong anti-corruption rhetoric, eagerly received after several years of corruption charges and arrests, and the fact that Lula was barred from running as a result of his jail sentence. Lula’s reputation had been severely damaged by his very public trial, and the PT’s chosen Presidential candidate, Fernando Haddad was largely viewed as Lula’s puppet, visiting him several times in prison. Bolsonaro, despite attracting widespread disgust over his comments towards indigenous Brazilians, women, LGBT+ people and the environment, was viewed by many as the ‘least worst’ option.
A heavy blow for democracy
It is not an understatement to say that the collusion allegations between former judge, Moro, and the prosecutors who brought the charges against Lula point to a direct attempt to prevent the PT from winning the 2018 election; a heavy blow for Brazil’s purported democracy.
Documents expose powerful Brazilian prosecutors, who should be apolitical, abusing their authority to block pre-election interviews with Lula, colluding with Moro to discuss the best way to structure their corruption case and changing their strategy in real time based on his advice.
Furthermore, leaked WhatsApp chats show the explicit intent of the prosecutors to prevent the PT from returning to power, with conversations revealing their doubts over whether the evidence against Lula would hold up in court. The Brazilian Judicial system requires that the prosecution operate separately from judges, in order to preserve the neutrality of the court. However, the evidence suggests that operation Car Wash has been politically and ideologically biased from the start, and is certainly responsible for paving the way for Bolsonaro’s rise.
The current president is an admirer of the previous dictatorships that ‘disappeared’ many Brazilians, favours offensive and inflammatory tweets as his primary method of communication, a la Trump, and is currently suffering from the lowest approval rating in Brazilian presidential history. He is also symbolic of the resurging authoritarian populism seen in the Philippines, Hungary and the US.
A Brazilian tragedy
Brazil is in many ways an embodiment of the current state of democracy; the increasing uncertainty in the ability of democratization in the neo-liberal capitalist reality, to empower and represent in an era of anti-globalisation, anti-immigration movements, widening socio-economic inequality, and the rise of the far-right. Is democracy as sustainable or as feasible as was once thought, and is it truly the best form of governance for states if it fails to address the problems of inefficiency, corruption and abuse of power that the notion of accountability is supposed to prevent?
This case is a Brazilian tragedy, a heart-breaking turn of events for a country which, until recently, appeared to have moved past its history of colonial rule and military dictatorship to become the strongest democratic presence in Latin America. Not anymore. It remains to be seen what will come of these allegations and whether they will impact Lula’s current sentence, and whether operation Car Wash will implode. Bolsonaro’s presidency is in its infancy, with presidential elections not due until 2022, and it is too soon to tell whether a second term will be sought. The fate of Brazil’s democracy has yet to be determined; for now, the only certainty is that no one knows what will happen next.