How fighting corruption could imperil Brazil’s political stability

Why is Brazil once again mired in political chaos?

Less than a year ago, the then president Dilma Rousseff was forced out of office in a swirl of claims about financial impropriety. Now her successor, Michel Temer, finds his presidency in peril as well.

Tapes that recently surfaced appear to capture Temer, who was already under investigation for corruption, approving of bribes paid to a lawmaker who has been jailed for corruption. Many now believe he will face impeachment.

On Wednesday, Temer deployed the military in the capital, Brasilia, after thousands of protesters clashed with police. Many saw the move as a sign of profound insecurity from a weak government.

Political science suggests this is an example of how the “islands of honesty” in corrupt systems — like independent prosecutors and courts with the willingness and authority to enforce the rule of law — can clash with networks of entrenched corruption, both provoking and spoiling efforts by elites to protect themselves. And as the honest forces and the corrupt ones struggle against each other, their clashes can have unpredictable effects on the political system of a country.

“We have to have a pact,” Romero Juca, an influential legislator, said in March 2016, to Sergio Machado, a former executive at a subsidiary of the Petrobras oil company, as the two men discussed the need to replace Rousseff to protect themselves and others from corruption charges. It was an apt choice of words. A “pacted transition” is one in which members of the elite, often within the government or its circle of allies, join forces with the opposition to replace a president or regime, hoping to protect their own interests. The term is generally used to explain how an authoritarian regime transitions to democracy, but it also offers a useful explanation of how impeachments work within democratic systems.

In Brazil, opposition politicians and other elites, including Machado and Juca, cooperated to impeach Rousseff in August. Many analysts believe that the charges against her — violating budgetary laws by borrowing from a state-owned bank to conceal a deficit — were minor. “Multiple games were being played with the impeachment of Dilma,” said Ken Roberts, a political scientist at Cornell University who studies Latin America. “In any impeachment, there are political and partisan interests. It’s never strictly a legal matter.”

Some politicians saw the impeachment as a chance to force Rousseff’s Workers Party from power, he said. But others seem to have believed that a new government would shut down a corruption inquiry that had implicated much of the political and economic elite, and that Rousseff had refused to block. Corruption depends on an “equilibrium”, political economist Miriam Golden and economist Ray Fisman have written. People pay or accept bribes because they think everyone else is doing it. Graft can quickly spread through a system like a metastasising cancer, taking hold across institutions.

But when prosecutors or judges gain enough independence to investigate and prosecute the corrupt, widespread corruption becomes widespread vulnerability, creating an incentive for politicians to take drastic action to protect themselves.

In Brazil, some politicians seem to have seen Rousseff’s ouster as such a drastic but necessary step. In their recorded conversation, Machado said to Juca that he wanted to see “the departure of Dilma”, saying that Temer “would form a government of national unity, make a major agreement, protect Lula and protect everyone”. “This country would return to being calm,” he added.

But pacted transitions can be vulnerable. If powerful institutions or constituencies do not buy into the terms of the pact, they can act as spoilers, leaving the government weak. The politicians who pushed for Rousseff’s impeachment appear to have wrongly assumed that the prosecutor’s office and judiciary would fall in line, and that a Temer government would be able to shut down or limit the corruption investigation.

That has not happened. The corruption prosecutions have continued under Temer’s presidency, and have focused on some of the most powerful people in the country. Eduardo Cunha, the former speaker of the lower house of Congress and a key architect of Rousseff’s impeachment, was convicted of corruption and money-laundering charges in March and sentenced to 15 years in prison. Former president Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva is facing multiple criminal charges.

The Brazilian public may have also been an important spoiler. The new government was unpopular from the beginning, said Amy Erica Smith, a professor at Iowa State University who studies Brazil. “Temer came in, and from Day 1 he was underwater in terms of popularity.”

The outcry against Temer suggests that the public will not tolerate political corruption, and that the legal system is strong enough to ferret out misconduct.

But experts worry that each round of allegations, prosecutions and impeachment weakens the political system and diminishes public trust. That makes it more difficult for political institutions to regain credibility and maintain stability.

In Venezuela, corruption undermined public confidence in the government, opening up space for Hugo Chavez’s populism. Over time, Chavez undermined government institutions and consolidated his power, putting the country on a path to authoritarianism and the economic crisis it faces today.

Brazil may face a similar fate. “I really worry that in cleaning it up, the whole system is going to crumble,” Roberts said. “I really fear what a Brazilian Berlusconi is going to look like.”

Smith concurred, saying: “It’s a house of cards. If enough of the cards are weak, it’s impossible to prop up.”

— New York Times News Service

Amanda Taub is a former human rights lawyer, who is now a writer for the @nytimes Interpreter, exploring the ideas and context behind major world events.