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Apr 18, 2017 | 09:13 GMT

5 mins read

Brazil's Corruption Scandal Brings Outsider Politicians In

The Odebrecht Corruption Scandal in Brazil
(MARIO TAMA/Getty Images)

Three years in, Brazil's sweeping corruption investigation shows no sign of slowing down. The probe, known as Operation Car Wash, has implicated many of the country's politicians, including former President Dilma Rousseff. And despite speculation in the media that Rousseff's impeachment would kill the probe, investigators have forged on, reaching politicians from across the political spectrum. Several business executives and political leaders from various parties have been caught up in the investigation and sentenced to jail time in the months since her ouster last August. The probe even took down Eduardo Cunha, a close ally of current President Michel Temer and member of his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) who led the charge to impeach Rousseff during his tenure as president of the legislature's lower house. Then on April 11, Supreme Court Justice Edson Fachin authorized investigations against the five former presidents who ruled the country from 1985 to 2011, when Rousseff assumed the presidency.

As the dragnet expands, fears are growing among members of Brazil's traditional parties that Operation Car Wash could destroy the political system as they know it. After all, the more conventional politicians the investigation ensnares, the greater the chances that a political outsider could come to power in the next round of general elections, slated for 2018.

The investigations are based on testimony from 78 former executives of the Brazilian engineering company Odebrecht. The accounts, which were leaked to the press, detailed how the company's executives bribed government officials and donated illegally obtained funds to campaigns for nearly all of Brazil's traditional political parties. In exchange, politicians promised to support legislation that would benefit the company and granted it contracts with state-owned firms. The probe's latest turn could have dire consequences for Brazil's major political groups, especially as elections approach.

A Political Survival Pact

Fearing the fallout, some of Brazil's most prominent politicians have started taking matters into their own hands to try to mitigate the probe's effects on the country's political class, or what's left of it. Former Presidents Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva and Fernando Henrique Cardoso reportedly negotiated a deal with Temer in November 2016 to try to slow the proceedings, according to Brazilian newspaper Folha. Temer is currently facing charges for receiving illegal campaign donations in the 2014 election, an accusation that could force him to resign. The pact — which allegedly also included Gilmar Mendes, a Supreme Court justice and president of the Electoral Court, where Temer is standing trial — aims to limit the investigation to enable him to stay in office until 2018. In addition, the leaders reportedly agreed to find legal mechanisms to delay da Silva's trial so that the popular politician could run for office again in the next elections. Cardoso denied involvement in the pact April 16, a few days after Folha ran news of the arrangement. (Temer, likewise, refuted the story April 17, claiming that he had met with da Silva and Cardoso to discuss political reforms.) At the same time, however, he called for national dialogue to keep Operation Car Wash from destroying Brazil's political system.

Beyond trying to slow the investigation, rumor has it that the leaders involved in the pact intentionally leaked details of the agreement to try to keep incarcerated members of the PMDB and da Silva's Workers' Party quiet. Brazilian investigators have resorted to questionable legal tactics over the course of Operation Car Wash, including issuing preventive arrests and offering pre-emptive plea bargains to gain information from politicians. (Brazilian authorities borrowed the moves from Italian investigators, who used similar tactics to catch politicians with the Clean Hands initiative during the 1990s.) By spreading word of their alleged deal, da Silva and Temer may have been trying to discourage their jailed colleagues from implicating more party members in the scandal. Though it's unclear how successful these efforts have been, Temer's trial has been indefinitely postponed, and a start date has yet to be set for da Silva's proceedings.

Should the pact fall through, Brazil's main political parties could try another approach to try to save face ahead of the elections. They could, for example, request limits on the use of preventive arrests and plea bargains. Alternatively, they could ask the Supreme Court to separate bribes from campaign funds derived through illicit means for the purposes of the investigation. Many of the politicians under investigation claim that the campaign funds in question are not bribes but rather donations from a political slush fund that they failed to report properly — a less severe crime.

Evening the Playing Field

Regardless of whether the politicians are found guilty, the investigation has damaged their reputations with the public and limited their prospects in the 2018 vote. And for political outsiders, the traditional parties' loss is their gain. Municipal elections in 2016 brought politicians from fringe parties and even figures without prior political experience to office in major cities such as Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo. Early polls, moreover, suggest that unconventional politicians such as Jair Bolsonaro, a right-wing congressman, or Marina Silva, an environmentalist who made an unsuccessful bid for office in 2014, could make a strong showing next year. As a result, even mainstream parties such as Cardoso's Brazilian Social Democracy Party are discussing running nontraditional candidates in next year's presidential race.

Of course, Brazil's traditional politicians still have more than a year to prepare for the next elections. But considering the progress Operation Car Wash has made — and the limited success of attempts to stop the investigation — it may already be too late for the country's established political class.

Brazil's Corruption Scandal Brings Outsider Politicians In
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