At the end of January, a Brazilian appeals court ruled unanimously to uphold the bribery conviction of former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. In doing so, the court has likely dashed Lula’s ambition to run once more for president in this year’s election. Many Western observers have hailed the decision as evidence of a strong judicial branch that is serious about rooting out the corruption that has plagued Brazilian politics for decades. However, what may ostensibly appear as a triumph for Brazilian democracy is, in fact, the opposite. Instead, last month’s spectacle is merely a single iteration in a broader, more ominous trend in Brazilian politics: the decline and failure of democratic institutions, driven primarily by a growing popular antipathy toward the country’s traditional political elite.
While the purifying fires of Operation Lava Jato—the sweeping corruption scandal that has come to dominate Brazilian politics in the past several years and for which Lula has been convicted—may seem to be a long-awaited reckoning for the less-scrupulous among Brazil’s political class, public knowledge of widespread corruption is not new. For example, the Mensalão scandal during Lula’s first term, wherein members of the government were implicated in a scheme that involved using cash payments to buy votes from opposition deputies, was the focus of national attention for several months. Yet in spite of the government’s blatant impropriety, Lula was reelected by a healthy margin the following year.
Widespread corruption alone cannot explain the sweeping political fallout of Operation Lava Jato. One must contextualize this corruption with other factors to fully explain both the declining trust in government and the conviction of Lula. While it would be reductive to assign the blame to any single factor, one has a particular, explanatory value: since 2015 Brazil has been mired in the worst economic depression in its modern history. When the spotlight was shone on the corruption of Brazil’s political class in 2005, voters gave it a pass, largely because the economy grew at a rate of 5.7 percent the previous year. During Lula’s presidency alone, 30 million Brazilians were lifted out of poverty, largely thanks to a combination of new social welfare programs and rapid economic growth. When his protégé, Dilma Rousseff, Minister of Mines and Energy during the Mensalão scandal (and later Lula’s Chief of Staff) ran for office, she won by 12 points. The economy grew at a staggering rate of 7.5 percent the previous year.
This mentality is certainly not unique to Brazilian voters, but it does have an extensive history in Brazil. Famously, residents of São Paulo said of Adhemar de Barros, who served as mayor and later governor of São Paulo in the 1950s and 1960s, that “ele rouba mas faz”: he steals, but he gets things done. However, when Operation Lava Jato began in 2014—around the same time the Brazilian recession began—voters were less inclined to forgive their political class. What has been so damaging about Operation Lava Jato is that it has left the impression in the popular Brazilian consciousness that their leaders were happily grafting nearly $10 billion while the economy was contracting at a rate of nearly 4% a year.
It is only when the sweeping corruption scandal is contextualized against the backdrop of widespread economic misery that one begins to understand the growing public frustration toward the traditional political class. And in fact, polling reflects a decisive change in public opinion that largely coincides with both Brazil’s economic crisis and the intensification of Operation Lava Jato. At the beginning of 2013, Rousseff’s approval rating was sitting at around 65 percent. By the middle of 2016, it was only at 13 percent. Rousseff’s successor, Michel Temer, fairs even worse: he is trusted by only 6 percent of Brazilians.
This mistrust of the political elite is not as healthy as it may seem at first glance. Since 2015, support for democracy in Brazil has fallen 22 percentage points, to 32 percent. Ominously, 55 percent of Brazilians would support a non-democratic form of government. This mentality seems to be reflected in the emergence of Jair Bolsonaro—an extreme right-wing former military officer and apologist for the dictatorship era—as a competitive candidate. In fact, according to most polls, he is second only to Lula in first-round preferences. Paradoxically, then, the sprawling corruption probe—exactly the type of effort one would like to see in a stable democracy that values the rule of law—is the very thing exacerbating the crisis of popular faith in public institutions.
It is through this lens that one can better understand the conviction of Lula not as evidence of an independent and rigorously scrupulous judiciary, but one that has simply internalized the public mistrust of any and all political elite. Take, for instance, Lula’s trial judge, Sérgio Moro, who has achieved superstar status in Brazil for his work leading the investigation behind Operation Lava Jato. Indeed, his status is largely built on his reputation as the brave judge that would “clean up” Brazil’s corrupt political class. Convicting Lula, then, would appear to be a crowning achievement in his effort to root out corruption in Brazilian politics. Yet while fighting corruption is a laudable effort, Moro’s tactics seem to demonstrate that he had already adopted a grim view of those he was investigating before he tried them in court. He created a media frenzy when he had police surprise Lula in his home and then drag him out for questioning. This was after Lula had already publicly agreed to be questioned.
The very same attitude was clear during the appeals proceedings as well. Before the ruling, the chief judge of the panel overseeing Lula’s appeal called Moro’s decision “technically flawless.” The judge’s Chief of Staff posted publicly on social media that she supported Lula’s conviction. It is not surprising, then, that the panel not only unanimously ruled to uphold Moro’s decision but also increased the severity of the penalty to twelve years and one month in prison.
Contrary to the chief judge’s praise for Moro’s ruling, the actual conviction was based on very poor and limited evidence. Essentially, Moro, and later, the appellate court, found that Lula had used his political power during his presidency to influence Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. In the following years, Petrobras was involved in a long string of illicit infrastructure deals with several firms, including OAS, a construction company. The courts pointed to Lula’s interest in a triplex apartment 164-A, owned by OAS, as well as several documents suggesting that renovations requested by Lula were completed. Yet crucially, there is no evidence that Lula either owned or lived in the triplex at any point. Beyond the suspicious activity with apartment 164-A, the court cited no evidence that directly implicated Lula in a quid pro quo with OAS. Instead, it argued that because it is known that OAS was taking kickbacks from Petrobras, and Lula was the sitting president at the time, it is reasonable to infer that he was aware and complicit. This is, needless to say, not sufficient evidence to convict someone beyond a reasonable doubt. And indeed, according to several analysts, no European or American court would have ruled to convict based on the evidence presented
The conviction of Lula, rather than demonstrating the strength of Brazil’s adherence to the rule of law or the independence of its judiciary, serves as a reminder that the country’s democratic institutions are quickly crumbling. The pervasive anti-elitism, which has been internalized by the court system, has cultivated a fertile ground for populism and illiberalism. And while eliminating corruption is indisputably a desirable objective, the intensity of Operation Lava Jato at a time of widespread economic misery is helping the corrosive disdain for the traditional political class fester. As the 2018 presidential election season begins, the tension seems to be reaching a fever pitch. As one leader in Lula’s Workers’ Party noted, “Lula will not be arrested, for Lula to be arrested, people will have to be killed. … They’re going to have to kill us, and kill Lula. It will not be peaceful.” In the end, unless Brazil’s political elite can shake themselves of their public image as decadent parasites, Brazil’s democracy will continue its rapid decline.