The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Bolsonaro ran against corruption. Now, he’ll have to find another slogan.

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro attends an event for Aviator and Brazilian Air Force Day last month in Brasilia. (Andre Borges/Getty Images)
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RIO DE JANEIRO — It was a moment when, after so many scandals and broken promises, Brazil finally seemed on the cusp of change.

The sprawling corruption probe known as Lava Jato had ensnared scores of politicians in Brazil and abroad, upending the Latin American power structure. The election of Jair Bolsonaro brought to power an outsider politician who promised to root out corruption. And for his justice minister, he named the anti-corruption judge who became a Brazilian hero leading the investigation.

Two years later, that minister, Sérgio Moro, is out of government. The corruption investigation is on life support. The coronavirus response has turned into a graft bonanza. And the president, who is himself being investigated by the supreme court for alleged misconduct, is declaring that public malfeasance is no longer an issue.

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“I don’t want to end Lava Jato; I ended Lava Jato,” Bolsonaro said last month, shortly before one of his top congressional allies was found with wads of cash stuffed into his underpants. “There isn’t any more corruption in the government.”

Rather than building on the momentum established over years of anti-corruption efforts — and capitalizing on overwhelming public support to crack down on political wrongdoing — Brazil appears to be regressing in its quest to stamp out the malfeasance.

The gap between the promise and the reality was made stark this month when Bolsonaro’s son Flávio, a senator, was charged with embezzlement and money laundering. Rio de Janeiro prosecutors allege that he took public money meant to pay legislative aides when he served in the state assembly. Another son, Carlos, a Rio city council member, has been accused of similar behavior. (Both have denied wrongdoing.)

“Unfortunately, in this presidency, the anti-corruption agenda has been abandoned,” Moro told The Washington Post. “This was one of the principal reasons that I left.”

In a country where the issue of corruption has rarely been the top concern, there is now a sense that a rare moment has passed and an opportunity missed. With so much attention focused on the coronavirus — which has killed nearly 170,000 Brazilians and infected more than 6 million — corruption has receded from the public debate.

“We feared that there would be setbacks,” said Bruno Brandão, the executive director of Transparency International in Brazil. “What we are seeing is the confirmation of what we had feared, and not only there are poor advances, but very serious setbacks. It’s very concerning and disappointing.”

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During the 2018 presidential campaign, Bolsonaro presented himself as uniquely positioned to rid the country of corruption. As a fringe politician with few legislative achievements, he had been too far removed from the country’s political elite to have been involved in Brazil’s biggest scandals. He was a member of what’s called here the “baixo clero” — the low clergy.

Corruption had never been central to his political messaging. He’d been far more concerned with hailing Brazil’s military dictatorship, taking umbrage with leftist social policies and making comments that shocked and offended. But as the campaign accelerated, he echoed the calls to do away with corruption — and found an audience.

“The evils and harms of corruption affect the population in every way,” he said before the election. “This is what we want to stop. A corrupt government stimulates crime in all areas.”

Then, after his victory, when he selected Moro — the stone-faced jurist called the “super-judge” — to be his justice minister, Brazilians saw proof he was serious. The so-called lavajatistas, the Brazilians most keen on ending corruption, formed one of the largest and most durable segments of his political base.

“He had the anti-corruption flag, even if he was not an anti-corruption politician,” said Alexandre Bandeira, a political analyst in Brasilia. “It was the right politics in the right moment.”

When Moro resigned in April, he accused Bolsonaro of misconduct. He said the president had tried to replace a police chief in Rio de Janeiro to potentially block investigations into his family and friends. The supreme court is investigating the allegations.

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Moro, widely considered a leading challenger to Bolsonaro in the 2022 presidential election, said he left feeling disappointed. When he came into office, he said he recognized anti-corruption efforts as “essential, given Brazil’s recent history.”

At the time, “there was a perspective that the elected president would have a posture more considered than when his traditional posture as a congressman,” he said. But that didn’t happened, he said. Bolsonaro “has given a bad example, not only by his discourse, but his actions, his movements.”

Bolsonaro’s office didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment.

The abdication of the anti-corruption mantle risks damaging Bolsonaro’s political support at a time when he appears increasingly vulnerable. Recent research suggests his erratic behavior during the pandemic — which he has minimized at every turn — has taken a political toll. Some of his 2018 voters have turned against him. Many of the candidates he supported in this week’s municipal elections lost.

Bolsonaro’s approval ratings have risen in recent months, buoyed by growing popularity among the poor. But political analysts warn that the support is tenuous. The country, which has been pumping money into the pockets of the poorest to offset the coronavirus economic fallout, will not be paying the benefit indefinitely.

Esther Solano, a sociologist with the Federal University of São Paulo, has spent years interviewing Bolsonaro supporters. She said the corruption scandals won’t shake the support among the most faithful. They’ll see Bolsonaro as a victim of political persecution.

Or they will “relativize” the scandals, said Nara Pavão, a political scientist at Federal University of Pernambuco. “Many people will think, ‘What he’s doing is nothing compared to what the last government did.’ We have a lot of empirical evidence of this.”

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But reactions could be different among his more moderate followers, Solano said. They initially supported Bolsonaro not for his ideology, but because he promised to address the country’s most pressing issues.

“For the more moderate, these corruption allegations are being paid attention to, and it’s having a negative impact on Bolsonaro’s image,” Solano said. “His middle-class voters are very disappointed with the departure of Sérgio Moro.”

It’s increasingly clear, analysts say, that the platform Bolsonaro ran on in 2018 will not be available to him for the next presidential campaign in 2022. Unable to position himself as an anti-corruption outsider, he’ll need to find a new base of support — perhaps among the poor, if he can find a way to continue or widen the social safety net.

“If Bolsonaro is reelected or not, it will have to be another story for him and his base,” Bandeira said. “He will need to transition.”

Heloísa Traiano contributed to this report.

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