“Anti-corruption” protesters turn a blind eye to Prosecutor General race

. Aug 17, 2019
"Anti-corruption" protesters turn a blind eye to Prosecutor General race In 2016, millions took to the streets to protest against the government of Dilma Rousseff and ask for her impeachment. Photo: Shutterstock

One of the keys to the success of the Car Wash investigation—the inquiry into political corruption that upended Brazil’s political system between 2014 and 2017—was the weaponization of street protests to tip the scale against elected officials and private actors accused of wrongdoing. By publicly endorsing calls for mobilization, then-federal judge Sergio Moro and prosecutor Deltan Dalagnol helped right-wing social movements coordinate waves of public protests which kept the political establishment on its toes. 

Arguably the people on the streets prevented the political concertation proposed by former Senate majority leader,

Romero Jucá, who sought to cease investigations and protect corrupt politicians with the active support “of the Supreme Court, and everyone.&#8221;</p> <p>As the masses of yellow shirts—in order to distance themselves from Brazil’s political parties, many activists wore the legendary yellow jersey of the national football team—flocked to the streets of Brazil’s largest cities, demanding accountability for massive public corruption, many praised the Car Wash investigation for ushering a new era in Brazilian politics: instead of resignation and cynicism, where many Brazilians would forgive their most-corrupt politicians by claiming &#8220;he steals, but he gets things done,&#8221; the people started to take to the streets to fight corruption and protect the accountability institutions that led this battle.</p> <p>Extrapolating this belief to base their predictions about how the anti-corruption drive would fare under Jair Bolsonaro’s government, experts, activists, and agents of Brazil’s control institutions expected that the new president’s hands would be tied. If he tried to limit the independence of Brazil’s public anti-corruption network or interfere with investigations, the reaction would be swift. The public would again take to the streets, Deltan Dalagnol’s videos would be shared by <a href="">millions of WhatsApp</a> users once more, and the attacks would cease.</p> <h2>Anti-corruption, or just anti-Workers&#8217; Party?</h2> <p>Skeptics—among which the author of this text is one—suggested caution. While some Brazilians might indeed have become intolerant towards corruption, the wave of street protests that led to the impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff was fueled by strong negativity her Workers&#8217; Party. Anti-Workers&#8217; Party sentiment (known as <em>antipetismo</em>) is <a href="">a powerful political phenomenon</a>, instrumentalized in many ways by the Brazilian right. But it is, in no way, equivalent to intolerance toward corruption. </p> <p>On the contrary, as many Brazilian and foreign researchers have shown, strong positive and negative partisanship may cloud one’s judgment of political facts, severely limiting political accountability. For the cautious among us, the future of Brazil’s anti-corruption network seemed bleak, as many of those who were promising to protect it, did not actually care about it.</p> <h2>Threats to the Federal Prosecution Office</h2> <p>The future always comes, and these competing predictions will be put to test in the coming days, as <a href="">President Jair Bolsonaro nominates the new prosecutor general</a> to lead Brazil’s powerful Federal Prosecution Office. The crown jewel of Brazil’s network of accountability institutions, the independence of the prosecution service was reinforced by a decision made by former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in 2003, who nominated the winner of an unofficial election held among the prosecutors themselves to lead the agency, breaking with the precedent of appointing a prosecutor who was politically close to the federal government.</p> <p>The current front-runner for Mr. Bolsonaro’s nomination, Augusto Aras, received <a href="">no votes</a> in the poll held in February. His appointment, if confirmed, will be the greatest attack on the Prosecution Service&#8217;s independence in almost 20 years. Yet, it does not seem that the anti-corruption movements who spearheaded the protests of recent years are willing to fight for Mario Bonsaglia—the most-voted among his peers—as vigorously as they have fought for accountability institutions in the past.&nbsp;</p> <p>Besides them, former Federal Judge Sergio Moro is now the minister of Justice in Mr. Bolsonaro’s cabinet, and the Operation Car Wash prosecutors are busy dealing with the fallout from the explosive revelations of bias and unethical behavior brought up by <em>The Intercept</em>’s series of leaked phone messages, minimizing the likelihood of a concerted defense of the Public Prosecution Service by some of its most popular leaders and allies. </p> <p>This leaves prosecutors at their most vulnerable position in decades, endangering the whole network of accountability institutions that Brazil has proudly built for the last 30 years. If the public does not tolerate corruption anymore, it is time to show it.

Fernando Bizzarro

Ph.D. Student in Political Science at Harvard's Department of Government. His research is focused on the nature, the causes, and the consequences of political institutions, particularly on political parties, regimes, and their impacts on human and economic development.

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