The Political Mess in Brazil Following ‘Operation Car Wash’


By Christian Oliver

It would surely be an understatement to deem Brazil’s political climate leading up to the October general election to be anything but dramatic and unpredictable. Presidential nominees have been stabbed, convicted for corruption, imprisoned, and have called for violent attacks on the opposition; all as a by-product of a corruption scandal bigger than ‘Watergate’.

Since 2014, Latin America’s largest democracy has been in somewhat of a political limbo. It started from a small investigation into how professional money launderers had used a petrol station and a car wash to move illegal money. This would be the root of the international corruption scandal aptly named ‘Operation Car Wash’.

Following the money, the investigation grew to uncover a corruption scandal in which state-owned oil company executives had taken bribes from a number of construction firms in return for contracts at inflated prices. Additionally, the New York Times then reported that 16 Brazilian companies rigged the bidding on petrol price contracts, thus rapidly inflating the price. This created the illusion of competition whist they had secretly decided the winner of the contracts amongst themselves. Company officials then received a cut of the money and further funnelled this to politicians and political parties.

According to the Globe and Mail; five former Brazilian Presidents, one in three cabinet ministers, and almost one in three senators were investigated or indicted at the hands of ‘Operation Car Wash’. This cost the former President of Peru his job, jailed the Ecuadorian vice-president, and lead to the impeachment of the former Brazilian President.

Former president – and the man President Obama once called “the most popular president in the world” – Lula da Silva (known affectionately as ‘Lula’) was soon to be dragged into the scandal along with his party (the Worker’s Party). Allegations were made that they had funnelled funds from the oil company to buy politicians’ votes and to pay for political campaign expenses.

Three years later, Lula was found guilty on five charges. It was revealed that he had been given a beachfront apartment by an engineering firm in return for his help in securing them contracts. Lula then surrendered himself and commenced a 12-year prison sentence beginning in April 2018. The former president still denies all charges and claims the investigations and trial were politically motivated to prevent him from running again for president.

The two successors to the presidency from Lula are also facing their own issues with the law. In 2016, Dilma Rousseff, immediate successor to Lula and close ally, found herself impeached and then removed from office by the senate over moving funds between government budgets, which is illegal under Brazilian law.

This then saw her vice-president and centre-right party leader Michel Temer take charge of the country until the end of the term in January 2019. Following from this, Temer would soon find himself with corruption allegations of his own. Brazil’s attorney general charged the Temer with illegally receiving money from the CEO of a large meatpacking firm who were already involved in multiple corruption cases. Temer denies all charges and will continue to see out the remainder of the Presidential term.

‘Operation Car Wash’ has cost Brazil billions of dollars. Tens of thousands of Brazilians lost their jobs as a result of abandoned petrol contracts, and it has effectively set Brazil up for years of economic and political uncertainty.

Whilst still serving his sentence, a poll published in August by Datafolha found that Lula da Silva still led by 39% in terms of voter intention. However, Brazil’s top electoral court eliminated the former President from ever running for a third term. This led Lula to endorse his former running-mate, Fernando Haddad. It would be fair to say that the admiration and popularity of Lula da Silva did not find its way to Haddad, as he failed to beat his far-right-wing opposition in the first and second rounds.

Social Liberal Party nominee Jair Bolsonaro took the lead in the first round of voting on October 7thof this year. Bolsonaro gained 46% of the vote, but failed to gain more than 50%, thus preventing him from immediately taking the presidency.

October 28thsaw Bolsonaro take on Haddad in the second-round run-off, confirming his presidency with a 55.1% majority to Haddad’s 44.9%.

Bolsonaro has polarised opinion throughout his political career, not just in the lead up to his election. He has often expressed homophobic and sexist comments, called for looser environment and gun regulations, and for attacks against the left. He has also praised Brazil’s 1964-85 military dictatorship and its extensive use of torture on thousands, and execution of hundreds.

The President Elect is also still to face trial before the supreme court accused of inciting hate speech and encouraging rape. In 2015, he was ordered to pay compensation to a fellow member of congress for openly saying she “wasn’t worth raping”. In early September 2018, during a campaign event, he also stated that he would like to shoot corrupt members of Lula’s party.

Bolsonaro has openly spoken nostalgically regarding his country’s former dictatorship, even criticising their ability to fail to hold power into the twenty-first century. He has also promised, when elected, to fill his administration with current and former military leaders, starting with his former military general running-mate. Bolsonaro will assume power on 1stJanuary 2019. 

In one of his first television interviews since being elected, Bolsonaro did not shy away from his usual inflammatory rhetoric, nor make any suggestion that he would temper his discourse once in power. He told Brazilian TV that it was the left-wing opposition who were fascists, not him. He also refused to retract his previous comments that the former Brazilian dictatorship should have killed 30,000 people, not just torture them.

In the long term, there is hope that ‘Operation Car Wash’ will make Brazil a much fairer democratic state run by cleaner law-abiding individuals.

However, in the short term, the operation is steering the nation away from its young fragile democracy, towards Bolsonaro’s far-right theocracy; or even beckon back a Brazilian dictatorship. Bolsonaro’s many critics and opponents have vowed to resist this threat to democracy and hold their first protests this week in many of Brazil’s major cities.



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