The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Corruption is not new to Brazil, so why is it threatening the presidency now?

Demonstrators during an April 17 protest in Sao Paulo, Brazil, look toward a big screen showing a session to review the request for the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff. (Rodrigo Paiva/Reuters)

Ronald Reagan was famously called “the Teflon president” for his ability to deflect scandals that might have sunk his popularity. So why couldn’t Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff tap into this same protection?

Following the lower house’s overwhelming vote on April 17 to impeach Rousseff, Brazil’s government sits on the brink of collapse. An onslaught of corruption charges against the president and her Workers Party (PT) has emboldened her political opponents. In response to allegations of an elaborate kickback scheme that funneled bribes to politicians via the state-run oil firm, Petrobras, Brazil’s elites — including the government’s largest coalition partner, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) — and the public have abandoned Rousseff’s government. Her approval stands at a historically low 9 to 10 percent.

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Media coverage of these scandals has been scathing and unrelenting. Yet high-level corruption is hardly new in Brazil. In fact, Rousseff’s predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva, also from the PT, was himself at the center of several scandals. In 2005, the expansive mensalão investigation of PT payoffs for legislative support threatened to derail his bid for reelection. And yet Lula proved to be a Teflon president and cruised to an easy victory in 2006 — and then helped his chosen successor win the presidency in 2010.

Without a doubt, the scope of the Rousseff investigation is larger than anything Brazilians have seen before. But the actual charges are strongly reminiscent of the 2005 scandal Lula weathered easily: In both cases, the scandal reached high-level politicians in the PT and its allied parties without directly implicating the president. Both scandals essentially involved the diversion of public funds to buy political favors.

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Yet this time around, public reaction to the news President Rousseff was allegedly involved in a scandal has been substantially more negative. Why have scandals provoked starkly different political outcomes for Rousseff and Lula?

What changed? It’s the economy.

Our research shows that in Brazil, as in most of Latin America, the public’s desire to hold their leaders accountable is highly contingent on the state of the economy.

A decade ago, full of optimism about the country’s economic prospects, most Brazilians were willing to brush aside the accusations against Lula’s government and grant him a second term. Today, however, with Brazil’s economic output in decline, commodity prices collapsing and inflation reaching double digits, Brazilians have shown substantially less tolerance. Instead they protested against government corruption, pressuring their representatives to impeach the president.

In a recent study examining how scandals shape presidential public approval, we find that the linkages between scandals and economic performance extend far beyond Brazil. In fact, looking at data from 84 presidential regimes across Latin America, we find that presidential approval ratings are very sensitive to charges of corruption, but only if the country is experiencing high inflation, high unemployment, or both.

Our work shows that as inflation and unemployment increase, scandals matter more — they have a far more negative effect on presidential approval ratings. Despite wide media coverage of the embezzlement, bribes and malfeasances of presidents and their associates, our research shows that a strong economy effectively shields leaders from political damage.

A weak economy makes presidents vulnerable

A weak economy not only makes presidents more vulnerable to scandals, it also provides an ideal environment for opponents to strike. Political scientist Aníbal Perez-Liñán describes the feeding frenzy that often results when scandals start to take a toll on a leader’s popularity. Essentially, scandals beget scandals; journalists are likely to dig up more dirt or investigate allegations they might previously have ignored.

As the figure below suggests for the case of Brazil, this scenario is most likely to unfold when presidents are seen as vulnerable and their approval ratings are on the skids — exactly what happens with a weak economy. As the figure below shows, Rousseff’s approval ratings were closely tied to Brazil’s declining economic outlook.

The Petrobras scandal, along with massive anti-corruption rallies that rocked the president and her party over the past two years, emerged only after steep declines in the country’s economic outlook. Rousseff’s reelection campaign in 2014 provided a brief respite in which her approval and the economic outlook ticked up. But this recovery was cut short by the media digging back into political scandals. As Brazil’s economy continued to soften, the president’s approval ratings fell off into the single digits.

What does this all mean for the durability and quality of democracy in new and developing countries? Well, the economic crisis and corruption scandals are pushing Brazilians to demand a more accountable and representative government. That’s the optimistic view — and perhaps that’s where democracy is headed in Brazil. For pessimists, however, the events in Brazil showcase a troubling trend of conditional accountability that does not bode well for democracy. The public is willing to forgive or ignore graft and corruption in good economic times and is only prepared to mobilize against corruption when the economy tanks.

Ryan E. Carlin is an associate professor of political science and the director of the Center for Human Rights and Democracy at Georgia State University, and co-editor of “The Latin American Voter: Pursuing Representation and Accountability in Challenging Contexts.”

Gregory J. Love is associate professor of political science at the University of Mississippi.

Cecilia Martínez-Gallardo is associate professor of political science at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.