An expert's point of view on a current event.

The Fate of Brazil’s Democracy Depends on a Man You’ve Never Heard Of

Sergio Moro is leading the biggest corruption investigation in the country's history. He'd better get it right.

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The Brazilian Senate has just voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. The state-owned oil company is engulfed in the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history, and the economy is contracting. Millions have taken to the streets in protest.

But all this turbulence may, in fact, end up stabilizing Brazilian democracy. That is, if Sergio Moro does the right thing.

The Brazilian Senate has just voted to impeach President Dilma Rousseff. The state-owned oil company is engulfed in the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history, and the economy is contracting. Millions have taken to the streets in protest.

But all this turbulence may, in fact, end up stabilizing Brazilian democracy. That is, if Sergio Moro does the right thing.

If you don’t follow Brazil closely, you probably don’t know who he is. To Brazilians, though, Moro has become a household name. He’s the judge leading the charge in the massive investigation against corrupt businessmen and government officials who stole millions of dollars from state coffers.

What started out in 2014 as a money-laundering case has expanded, under Moro’s lead, into a series of revelations about a massive web of kickback schemes centered on Petrobras, the state-owned oil company. Rousseff, who was the company’s chairwoman from 2003 to 2010, may have been involved in this chicanery, a suspicion that catalyzed her impeachment process. The investigation has also exposed Petrobras’s financial weaknesses, which — given its importance as the largest company in Brazil and employer of over 80,000 people — partially explains why the country’s economic prospects are growing dimmer by the day.

Despite reforms in the 1988 constitution to separate the judiciary from the executive and legislative branches of government, Transparency International ranks Brazil as relatively soft on corruption. As an oft-cited maxim has it, “The police arrest, the courts set free.” But Moro’s tenacity highlights the independence of the country’s federal prosecutors and points the way forward. If all goes well, it could “further consolidate democracy in Brazil and begin the long-overdue assault on impunity so long enjoyed by Brazilian politicians and elites,” said Riordan Roett of the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.

But it remains unclear whether Moro’s actions will ultimately benefit Brazil. In fact, his zealotry has left many wondering whether he has unfairly targeted the ruling Workers’ Party to which Rousseff belongs. In particular, his sensational approach to the investigation — described as “gratuitous, media-orchestrated theater” by longtime Brazil analyst Perry Anderson — raises serious concerns about his motives. If this perception doesn’t change, Moro could fatally undermine the country’s rule of law instead of reinforcing it.

Perhaps most egregiously, Supreme Court Judge Teori Zavascki and other critics have argued that Moro behaved inappropriately when he decided to release secret transcripts of conversations between Rousseff and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The transcripts — in which the president appeared to offer Lula protection from prosecution by appointing him to a cabinet position — fueled street protests against the Workers’ Party, and there’s no doubt the episode played a role in gathering momentum for Rousseff’s impeachment. The judiciary was widely criticized for inappropriately seeking to influence public opinion. Moro even admitted that he may have overstepped his bounds. “My ruling may have been considered incorrect, or even if correct, may have brought controversy and unnecessary constraints,” he wrote in a court filing after the Supreme Court asked him to explain himself.

Shortly before the release of the transcripts, Moro had ordered a sensational dawn raid at Lula’s home, allegedly to prevent him from destroying evidence that might have implicated him in the Petrobras scandal. This, too, was extremely controversial both in Brazil and abroad. Police removed Lula from his house in the “full glare of media [who had been] tipped off about the event,” wrote Brazilian journalist Eliane Brum.

Some analysts contend that disproportionately targeting the Workers’ Party is inevitable. “The Workers’ Party has been in power since 2003 and has been able to appoint most of the key figures at Petrobras.… [T]his means, essentially, that the Workers’ Party was necessarily at the heart of the country’s largest potential source of corruption,” said Alec Lee, a Brazil analyst at the Frontier Strategy Group.

But Moro’s sensational approach weakens the judiciary’s role as an impartial counterbalance to the politicians. If Workers’ Party supporters see their party as falling victim to an activist judiciary, their resulting alienation from the political process could lead to serious discord. In other countries, such as Turkey and Thailand, unelected bodies have aggravated conflicts by interfering in politics. Brazil is not impervious to such a scenario.

Moro still has time to change course. Simply put, he needs to stop targeting the Workers’ Party with sensational operations that can so easily be construed as partisan. If he conducts the remainder of the investigation soberly and impartially, he can change the perception of having become a “poster boy for anti-government protesters,” as the BBC recently described him. Given his newfound prominence, there is much Moro can still contribute to the creation of a system in which the judiciary really is impartial — the dream of democratic reformers everywhere.

Since Brazil’s transition from military rule to democracy in 1985, the country has been dominated by politicians who abused their positions to corrupt ends. The ongoing Petrobras scandal is one notable example of such malfeasance, but it is not the only one. After all, about 60 percent of Brazil’s members of Congress — including the recently removed speaker of the lower house and many of the politicians calling for Rousseff’s impeachment — are facing charges of bribery and other illegal behavior. So it’s certainly good news that corruption is being tackled in a high-profile way. The problem is that battling corruption dishonestly — or in a way that looks dishonest — can be worse than not doing it at all.

Moro must be smart enough to realize that, given the fervent debate catalyzed by his apparent activism, proceeding on his previous path would do his country more harm than good. For Brazil’s sake, he had better act on that knowledge.

In the photo, Sergio Moro smiles during a Senate session in Brasilia on Sept. 9, 2015.

Photo credit: EVARISTO SA/AFP/Getty Images

Nicholas Borroz is a Washington-based strategic intelligence consultant who provides guidance on managing international investment risk.

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