The Favouritism in Brazilian Politics That Has Made Way for a Dangerous President

Dilma Rousseff, former President of Brazil. Photo by dilmarousseff, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Jair Bolsonaro is arguably Brazil’s most problematic President since the country’s 21-year-long military dictatorship came to an end in 1985. Not only are his controversial and frequently misinformed opinions on issues such as COVID-19 concerningly popular, but he also often expresses opinions on women and his political opponents which demonstrate extreme misogyny and employ violent militaristic rhetoric.

Fittingly, a troubling state of affairs led to the rise to power of this highly controversial figure in modern Brazilian politics. His election stemmed from widespread public mistrust in former President Dilma Rousseff and her left-leaning Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT) following her impeachment in 2016 and party-wide corruption concerns. These charges of impeachment not only had questionable grounds of legitimacy, but corruption and financial collusion within Brazil’s government have defined the nation’s political climate since the collapse of the dictatorship over 30 years ago. This endemic corruption had been a mainstay in Brazil, well before PT’s 2002 rise to power, but was not addressed until Brazilians had elected their first female President.

The Presidents and Petrobras

Within the Brazilian political dialogue, it is a widely accepted truth that corruption has long been an integral part of the political system’s workings. Since the beginning of the ‘New Republic’ in which democracy was restored, eight Presidents have been in service, seven of whom have been tainted by serious corruption scandals.

The first President, José Sarney, was accused of collaboration with private companies in public infrastructure projects as well as nepotism, leading to multiple impeachment requests. His successor, Fernando Collor de Mello, was found guilty of profiting off an influence-peddling scheme led by his campaign manager.

More recently, two presidents from Partido Dos Trabalhadores, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva (Lula) and Dilma Rousseff have likewise been the subject of significant scandals.  Both of these influential 21st century presidents played a shaping role in contemporary Brazilian politics, partly by highlighting the bias within the country’s judiciary system.

Corruption allegations against Rousseff started to gain momentum in 2014 as Operation Car Wash began, a campaign that uncovered a deep-rooted web of corruption linking state-owned oil corporation Petrobras with large construction companies and members of political parties. The operation’s head was Sergio Moro, a judge who quickly swayed the media to support his narrative. Moro’s investigation soon targeted Lula as one of the figures who were complicit in bribery.

Allegations against Lula soon began to affect Rousseff, as she had appointed him as her Chief of Staff. This in turn, led to a campaign against Rousseff, in which she was accused of protecting Lula from investigation and prosecution by appointing him with such a role; an appointment which would later be overturned by the courts.

A wiretapping operation took place in order to record the conversation between Lula and Rousseff regarding Lula’s appointment. However, the wiretapping would be deemed illegal, as an order to stop the recording was issued two hours before the conversation took place. With this considered, the fragility of the case against Rousseff began to show itself.

This scandal provided the backdrop to the  2014 general election, in which Rousseff came up against Aecio Neves, leader of the opposition party Partido da Social Democracia Brasileira (PSDB). Rousseff was successful in her campaign, yet Neves called the victory illegitimate.

Impending impeachment

It was at this point that certain members of government started to target Rousseff for impeachment. She was accused of delaying the transfer of funds to public banks in order to cover budget gaps. In the discussions triggered by these accusations the question was not whether or not Rousseff was innocent, instead her guilt was presumed and it was merely a matter of whether or not this action merited her impeachment.

This compounded ever-growing public distrust in Rousseff, which was already being aided by conservative media campaigns and outspoken political figures.

The campaign to oust Rousseff was further bolstered by Speaker of the Lower House, Eduardo Cunha’s decision to open impeachment proceedings, an action shrouded in controversy as Cunha was the subject of a number of corruption allegations himself. Cunha was accused of bribing a group of congressmen who would later elect him as President of the Lower House, as well as hiding millions of dollars in offshore accounts and other fronts.

Over the coming weeks, the public, which had already been riled up by the words of Sergio Moro along with several right-wing congressmen, rallied for Rousseff’s impeachment. Congress voted ‘Yes’ for impeachment with 367 for and 137 against.

Over 300 of the congressmen who voted were facing criminal charges or were under investigation at the time. It could be argued that the impeachment was carried out to satisfy the public hunger for corrupt officials to be punished, making Rousseff a form of scape goat whilst these bent congressmen were left in the clear.

Following Dilma Rousseff’s 2016 impeachment, her Vice President Michel Temer was appointed as President for the rest of the presidential term. However, popular dissatisfaction did not end there.

The new President appointed an all-male, all-white cabinet, three of whom were charged with corruption within a month of their appointments. Temer himself was arrested as part of Operation Car Wash in 2019 after he granted three construction companies contracts for a nuclear facility after receiving a bribe equivalent to over £130,000.

Eduardo Cunha, who was instrumental in Rousseff’s impeachment, was sentenced to 15 years in jail in March 2017 after being charged with corruption, including tax evasion and money laundering.

Another figure who was subject to prison time as a result of Operation Car wash was Lula, the former left-wing President. Lula was accused of providing contracts to Grupo OAS, a construction company, in return for assets including a luxury apartment just outside of São Paulo.

However, much of this evidence was circumstantial. Criminal law professor Rodrigo Falk Fragoso commented that, “there isn’t one direct piece of evidence of the property being transferred, just rather a combination of indications”.

Moreover, law professor Francisco Monteiro Rocha Junior stated that Lula’s actions could not legally be defined as money laundering. Despite this, he served 580 days in jail.

Setting the stage for Bolsonaro

After the impeachment of Rousseff and the disastrous term of Temer, who secured an approval rating of just 7% in June 2017, public dissatisfaction with and distrust in Brazilian politicians was strong.

This distrust in politicians made way for the rise of Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing populist who opposes same-sex marriage and many environmental regulations, and has widely downplayed the seriousness of the Covid-19 pandemic.

The latter issue has had dire consequences, with the country recording nearly half a million COVID-19 deaths to date largely due to government mishandling, meaning it has a worse death rate than the United States, United Kingdom, or India.

The Brazilian President is also a military fanatic, so much so that he dedicated his vote in favour of Rousseff’s impeachment to Carlos Alberto Brilhante Ustra, a colonel from the Brazilian dictatorship who tortured numerous political prisoners, torture which Rousseff herself was subject to. For the generations of Brazil that can remember the horrors of the dictatorship, are they comfortable with a president who puts such a dictatorship on a pedestal?

To further this concern, Bolsonaro also had a photo of Emilio Garrastazu Medici, amongst other military dictator figures, on his office wall as he ran for President in 2018. Medici was renowned for being the most oppressive and violent President of the dictatorship, a man who tortured thousands for their political beliefs and introduced heavy media censorship; a man who the current President of Brazil adores.

Brazil now finds itself in a scenario where its President is an admirer of a brutal military dictatorship and a sceptic of the worst pandemic in a century, whose popularity was partially born out of a corruption scandal that led to the questionable impeachment of Brazil’s first female President. It would suggest that the Brazilian congress, in a moment when they should remain impartial to political partisanship, have put personal interests before those of the public. As a result, the country continues to suffer the consequences of public health negligence under Bolsonaro, coupled with his misogynistic and discriminatory outlooks.

As Lula and Rousseff’s predicaments demonstrate, favouritism in the Brazilian justice system is a huge issue. Corruption within Brazilian government has always been lurking in the background, and it does not seem to be going away anytime soon. The continuous string of corruption scandals that have characterised the nation’s post-dictatorship politics becomes even more dangerous and difficult to shift, when those in power are afforded the choice of whether to tackle the problem or ignore it and let it eat away at Brazil’s already fragile political structure.


Read more from the Americas section here.