The Good News From Brazil

It's always the problems that get the headlines. But if you look under the surface, you'll see that the rule of law is taking shape.

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The world may be watching the Olympic spectacle in Rio de Janeiro, but many Brazilians are following an entirely different drama. In May 2016, the Brazilian Senate voted to continue impeachment proceedings against President Dilma Rousseff. The final vote will take place in the last week of August, and it seems almost certain that the president will be impeached for fiscal crimes, falsifying public accounts, and budgetary mismanagement.

In the meantime, additional investigations continue to implicate more Brazilian politicians and businessmen in the so-called Car Wash corruption scandal, one of the most extensive the world has ever seen. Although President Rousseff has not so far been personally implicated in anything relating to the scandal, there is abundant evidence that her Workers’ Party and its allies used political appointees to siphon off money from Petrobras, the state oil company. These resources were used to garner allies and electoral support, and have contributed to cementing the party’s grip on power since 2003. To add insult to injury, the combination of low commodity prices, the corruption scandal, and overall economic mismanagement have led to a massive economic crisis, with inflation and unemployment rising to levels unseen since the early 1990s. These numbers are worse than even the most pessimistic forecasts. They indicate that Brazil is in the grip of its worst recession since the Great Depression.

Is it déjà vu? In 1992, Brazil was similarly in the grip of twin political and economic crises. Even as the country was experiencing some of the most extreme hyperinflation in history, its congress impeached Fernando Collor de Mello, the first democratically elected president in over 30 years, for corruption. So, though the country seems to have done well in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, recent events suggest that those years were just a fluke, and that Brazil has now returned to its old ways.

Or has it? A closer look at the details of the current turmoil makes quite a different case.

High-ranking politicians, including important figures from the new party in power, have been investigated, charged, tried and jailed. Businessmen from several of the country’s biggest and most influential firms are in jail, too. And the federal judges and police in charge of these investigations have managed to uncover and successfully prosecute members of the ruling elite without being fired or in any way hindered from doing their jobs. Indeed, their approval ratings and legitimacy in Brazilian society have soared. The Supreme Court has firmly and impartially supervised the contentious impeachment of the president, despite the fact that her party appointed eight of its eleven sitting justices.

Social policies instituted by the previous government (e.g. the Bolsa Familia welfare program) have not been cancelled or changed by acting President Michel Temer. The maintenance of poverty alleviation programs by the new administration is a sign that these policies are stable and held to be consistent with Brazil’s dominant belief of social inclusion. Temer’s new economic team has taken steps to achiee fiscal balance, control of inflation, and macroeconomic stability. Mass protests in the streets have periodically taken place — but without violence and with no credible fears of military intervention.

In light of these facts, it becomes hard to sustain the view that Brazil is still the same old lawless, corrupt place. Of course, the country’s entrenched cynicism dies hard, even when confronted with such remarkable evidence. Perhaps these are just flukes or one-time deals — powerful officials eliminating their rivals through legal mechanisms?

In fact, what we’re seeing in Brazil is the naturally messy process through which the rule of law emerges. The unexpected strength of the country’s checks and balances has brought powerful changes in a relatively short period. And the strength of these checks and balances derives from specific, intentional decisions made in the country’s 1988 constitution. These choices — including an inclusive electoral system, entry points for civil society participation, and a constitutionally strong president — have also granted great power and independence to “non-political” institutions such as the judiciary, public prosecutors, audit courts, the federal police, and a free media. That is the institutional miracle that has powerfully changed Brazilian politics.

Of course, this process of strengthening rule of law is not linear. It is untidy and full of bumps. But what’s most important to observe is the long-term trend: Rule of law is winning in Brazil.

Lee Alston is the Ostrom Chair, professor of economics and law, and Director of the Ostrom Workshop at Indiana University.
Marcus Melo is professor of political science at the Federal University of Pernambuco, Brazil.
Bernardo Mueller is professor of economics at the University of Brasilia.
Carlos Pereira is professor of political science at the Brazilian School of Administration at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.
They are co-authors of the recent book, Brazil in Transition: Beliefs, Leadership and Institutional Change. 

In the photo, fireworks explode over Maracana stadium during the opening ceremonies of the 2016 Olympic Games on August 5 in Rio de Janeiro.

Photo Credit: MARIO TAMA/Getty Images

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