How Brazil’s Left Destroyed Itself

Once upon a time, the Workers’ Party promised clean government. Now it’s squarely at the center of the biggest corruption scandal in the country’s history.

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After days of chaos in the upper ranks of Brazilian politics, the Senate in Brasilia has voted for the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff. This moment marks the final fall from grace not only of the president but also of her ruling Workers’ Party, which has run the country for 13 years.

Not so long ago, many in Brazil saw the Left as the best hope for the country’s salvation. And, though the Workers’ Party may be better known in the wider world for its audacious (and successful) antipoverty programs, no less of a draw for Brazilians was its promise to institute clean government and do away with graft. 

Now, however, the biggest corruption scandal in national history is revealing the extent to which Rousseff and her allies actively contributed to the rot of Brazil’s democratic institutions. It has taken the impeachment of the country’s first female president — who once stood as a champion of the fight for clean government — to lay bare this dispiriting reality.

At the very moment Rousseff assumed office in 2011, the country was confronting an earlier scandal involving corruption at the highest levels. That year, several high-ranking politicians from the office of her patron and predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, faced trial for their role in creating an extensive legislative vote-buying system (known as the mensalão). During her first 12 months in office, Rousseff acted decisively, firing six ministers who had been implicated in various corruption investigations. Her approach became known as the “ethical clean sweep,” and it resonated with the public.

In so doing, Rousseff was merely picking up on a theme that had already been central to her party’s message a few years earlier. While in the opposition during the 1990s, the Workers’ Party had gone to great lengths to stress its anti-corruption credentials. The demand for “ethics in politics” figured prominently in the party’s talking points, usually right after its trademark anti-poverty policies.

The mensalão scandal, which emerged in 2006, during Lula’s first term as president, thus represented a profound shock for Brazilian voters, who were horrified to see some of his closest associates revealed as profoundly corrupt. Historian Lincoln Secco later described the resulting mess as the party’s “biggest crisis” — one it survived due to its deep base of support among the working class and Lula’s personal popularity.

Rousseff’s assumption of the presidency occurred, therefore, just as the Brazilian Left was starting to lose its aura of innocence. In 2013, midway into her first term, the mensalão scandal resulted in jail terms for some of the country’s most powerful men, including Lula’s ex-chief of staff and a former Workers’ Party leader. Though Rousseff wasn’t accused of any misdeeds, her reputation was tainted by association. She, too, after all, was a Lula protégée.

Just as she ended her first term in office, another scandal was emerging — this one far larger and potentially more devastating than the mensalão. It centered on the state oil company, Petrobras, where Rousseff was chairwoman of the board from 2003 to 2010. The company had been a key driver of Brazil’s rise over the previous decade, and the scandal effectively brought Brazil’s economy, which had already started to struggle, to its knees. Petrobras and large construction companies drastically cut investment, with a nationwide impact, as estimated by a Brazilian consulting company, of $40 billion.

Brazilians had been accustomed to viewing corruption as the province of wayward individuals. Now, however, the evidence pointed to an elaborate criminal enterprise dedicated to turning Brazil’s economic power into an enrichment mechanism for the political elite. Those involved in uncovering the Petrobras affair claim that it is the largest anti-corruption investigation in Brazil’s history. It may well turn out to be one of the largest and most ambitious in the world. Federal Police investigators estimate that $12 billion was siphoned into the accounts of politicians and parties. (This compares with $28 million of money spent on bribes in the mensalão scandal.)

So what went wrong with the promise of “ethics in politics”? Even at the heights of their influence and popularity — Lula had a record 87 percent approval rating during his final months — neither Workers’ Party president managed to overhaul Brazil’s dysfunctional political structure, leaving it vulnerable to corruption. Perhaps the biggest problem they failed to address was the fragmented party system, which tends to lead to the creation of complex ruling coalitions. This, in turn, gives coalition leaders incentives to create intricate patronage arrangements to keep their many allies in line. (This, indeed, was the reason for the mensalão scheme.)

To the great dismay of Workers’ Party supporters, who originally regarded it as an anti-systemic party that was inherently “clean,” the Lula and Rousseff administrations ended up entwining themselves even more deeply in opaque coalition-building than their predecessors. Key party figures excelled at playing the game, once even creating a coalition that brought together 10 parties in 37 ministries — both unprecedented numbers. In 2012, the Supreme Court described the mensalão as the “strategy of the Workers’ Party for keeping itself in power.”

Today, supporters of the government are right to point out that Rousseff is one of the few high-profile political figures who has not been accused of abusing her office for personal enrichment. (Her impeachment is related to alleged manipulation of public accounts to disguise a deficit). But as key figures around Rousseff were detained or questioned, her reputation as an ethical champion fell apart. Every revelation of bribery in Petrobras reduced the trust she had earned — especially since she was the head of the board for seven years during the Lula presidency, when the scheme was at its peak. The allegations of fiscal mismanagement have combined with the clear evidence of corruption within her party to devastating effect.

To be sure, the crisis of confidence is affecting all of Brazil’s factions. Many opposition politicians have been booed during street protests against the government. The man who led the impeachment campaign against Rousseff, Congressman Eduardo Cunha, was recently suspended from his post by the Supreme Court. But the details about the corruption directly involving the Workers’ Party — such as revelations about mechanisms that fed misappropriated Petrobras funds straight into party accounts — have surprised even the most cynical observers of Brazilian politics.

Rousseff’s downfall is thus inseparable from the broader credibility crisis convulsing Brazil’s political system. She has lost the trust of most Brazilians, many of whom believe that she must at least have been aware of the corruption in Petrobras during her tenure as chairwoman of its board. Her reputation for improving the lot of the poor also weakened as the economy shrank by 3.8 percent last year. The poor were hit hardest by rising inflation, which reached 10 percent in the same period, far surpassing the official targets. In December, a few months before the start of Rousseff’s impeachment process, her approval rate had fallen to a historic low of 9 percent. A record 3.5 million people took to the streets on March 13 to demand her impeachment and to show support for the Petrobras investigation.

Brazil’s loss of innocence was also Rousseff’s downfall. Distrust contaminated her administration, making governing a practical impossibility — during her last days in power, she had trouble getting governors and mayors to answer her phone calls. More broadly, the credibility of both the legislative and executive branches has been damaged as Brazilians realized the extent to which corruption had infiltrated these institutions. The Workers’ Party lost, maybe forever, its narrative of bringing ethics to the country’s politics. As a result, Brazil’s parties and other political institutions are facing their biggest crisis since the fall of the military regime in 1985. For now, the people’s trust has been transferred to other institutions. The Federal Police, the judges, and the prosecutors pursuing the Petrobras scandal have become heroes. How they conduct their work, and whether they’ll be able to bring the investigation to a satisfactory conclusion, will determine the future of Brazil’s gravely weakened democracy.

In the photo, dejected supporters of President Dilma Rousseff react to news that her impeachment would move forward in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on April 17. 

Photo credit: GUSTAVO ANDRADE/AFP/Getty Images

Antônio Sampaio is a Research Associate for Security and Development at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), where he analyzes urban armed violence and Latin American politics.