Can the 2018 Election Overcome Brazil’s Crisis of Legitimacy?

By Fabio Kerche*


The Brazilian flag. / Club Med UK / Flickr / Creative Commons

The political and economic crisis punctuated by the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 persists unabated under the troubled administration of Michel Temer.  Stagnation is fueling unemployment, and the government’s efforts to rein in pensions and limit public spending are reinforcing the perception that the principal objective of those who ousted Dilma is to cut back on social rights promised in the 1988 Constitution and deepened by Dilma and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  Even more ominously, the continuing cascade of corruption allegations is also undermining support for the new government.

  • Surveys show that only 10 percent of Brazilians rate the Temer government as “good” or “great,” and that its legitimacy is further undermined by whistleblowers alleging that the president and nine of his ministers are corrupt.

The notorious “Car Wash” anti-corruption campaign is hurting more than Temer and his men.  Zealous prosecutors and judges are essentially criminalizing not only politicians’ behavior but, through aggressive interpretations of the law, the practice of politics itself.  The targeting of Dilma’s leftist PT is most obvious, but the deluge of charges is now buffeting all the major political parties.  Leaders of the center-right PSDB, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have been accused of corruption as well.  Except for some miniscule political parties, virtually the entire political system now faces corruption charges.

The 2018 presidential election offers the most plausible avenue for emerging from the crisis, but even that remains highly problematic.  There is a relative consensus among the political class and political analysts that a new, legitimate, and directly elected president could reverse, or at least limit, the deterioration of the political system.  With just over a year remaining for candidates to register, the likely roster is very uncertain, in part because a basic feature of constitutional democracy – that citizens are allowed to compete for office – is increasingly in jeopardy amid the current anti-corruption fever.  Early polls place Lula as the strongest among the likely candidates, and he remains in first place even when surveys include Sérgio Moro, the most important judge in the Car Wash saga, who has not declared himself to be in the running.  But it is unclear whether the courts will let Lula stand for office.  Right-wing media are hammering Lula’s alleged corrupt practices while downplaying those of Temer and his cabinet.  Potential candidates of PSDB have been denounced for receiving bribes and having overseas bank accounts, and their numbers are shrinking in the polls.  An alternative now being floated as a potential PSDB candidate is João Dória, the newly elected mayor of São Paulo who, like U.S. President Donald Trump, is a non-mainstream politician and businessman who formerly hosted the Brazilian version of the TV show The Apprentice.)

  •  This uncertainty – even if the parties resist the continuing wave of Car Wash denunciations and take back some political space from the unelected judicial branch of government – raises the question whether, over the next 18 months, Brazil’s 32 year-old democracy proves itself to be irreversible or to have been an all too brief interlude in the country’s political history. The apparent appeal of outsiders in an environment that is criminalizing politics is a worrisome sign.

April 24, 2017

* Fabio Kerche is Research Fellow at CLALS and Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.

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  1. Fabio Kerche is, I think, correct to note that the current extent of corruption allegations has the effect of “criminalizing politics.” The point of democratic institutions, including institutional checks and balances, is to govern in a world populated and led by imperfect human beings. Contemporary Brazil does not need more moralistic frenzy: surely the lessons have been learned? Let he who is without sin among us cast the first stone. I will be horrified if Sergio Mota becomes a serious presidential candidate.

    • Fabio Kerche

       /  April 25, 2017

      Thank you for your comments. In Italy, where they have faced a similar process against politicians, judges and prosecutors ran in elections after they became superstars thanks to the Clean Hands Operation. But Moro’s potential candidacy is speculation so far. I agree with you: the problem isn’t moral, but institutional.

  2. It is difficult to see who is going to be the political figure emerging from all of this political and moral crisis that took the Brazilian government by storm. It is surprising to see some pools indicating that if Lula was to run the 2018 elections he would still have the support of an enormous share of the populations, who remains ignorant or confuse with the entrenched consequences of the systemic corruption in Brazil. A political reform is needed to change and implemented the most basic principles of governance decency. The overwhelming protection of politicians benefits, allowing them to navigate through loopholes to avoid prosecution and to abuse power creating a culture of corruption and inefficiency, has to be tackled by someone willing to genuinely and selfishly represent the long-term interest of the people. The problem is that, given the level of despair and hopelessness of the people, it is easier to seek and obtain power through the populist discourse and that is why we see ourselves in the current situation.

    • Fabio Kerche

       /  April 25, 2017

      Thank you for your comments. It is not “some” polls, but all polls. I don’t share the vision that those who support Lula are “ignorant or confused”. Polls are showing that he is becoming stronger among all social classes. I think this is consequence of a very problematic government in charge and memories of a very good moment during Lula’s administration. As you know, Lula left the government with an 85% approval rate. I agree with you about an environment inclined to a populist approach. That is the reason that political parties and politicians are so important. It is at the level of politics, rather than at the judicial-bureaucratic level, that we will be able to find a way to end this crisis.


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