Um Mondo Novo. A New World. The slogan for the 2016 Olympic Games represented the Rio Organizing Committee’s hope for a better, brighter world. What the committee might not have realized at the time was that the slogan hit close to home for Brazil. With the suspension of President Dilma Rousseff from office earlier in the year, combined with multiple corruption scandals and economic crises, Brazil hoped that the Olympics could divert attention from the current political situation by restoring national pride and boosting tourism. However, when the Mayor of Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Paes, was booed at the closing ceremonies, it became clear that the Games had failed to placate the public.
When Brazil won the bid for the recent Olympic Games in October 2009, it did so at the height of their economic success. The then President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva could hardly contain his excitement, proclaiming that hosting the Games would be an unrivalled opportunity to boost the self-esteem of Brazilians and stimulate new progress. Two years later, Brazil earned its best rating in the Gini Inequality Index, which measures the income distribution of a nation’s residents since 1960. Combined with the economic success of the government-owned oil company Petrobras after the discovery of oil off the coast of Brazil, such events seemed to signal that Brazil was on both a political and economic upward trend.
However, the progress that Brazil made in the early 2000s was soon to be lost, after heavy investment into deep water oil exploration led to excessive debt. This debt, coupled with the collapse in oil prices in late 2014, caused an economic crisis in Brazil. In spite of the economic decline, the real cause of Brazil’s downfall lied not in the collapse of the Brazilian economy, but rather in the resulting corruption scandal known as Operation Car Wash. Over US$2 billion is estimated to have been leached away in corruption involving the federal government, governors, members of Congress, and senators as they received kickbacks in return for allowing Brazil’s biggest construction firms to overcharge Petrobras for building contracts.
At the same time that Operation Car Wash peaked, it was found that Brazilian President Rousseff manipulated the government’s budget in 2014 when she was seeking re-election. In response to the budget mismanagement, Rousseff was suspended from office in May 2016 – mere months before the start of the Olympic Games. Thus, as the Olympic torch reached Rio in August, it seemed that the Brazilian economy as well as its political sphere had gone up in flames.
The suspension of President Rousseff prior to the Olympic Games came with many negative consequences. Although it was determined that 60 percent of Brazilians supported the impeachment of President Rousseff in a poll by Brazilian newspaper Folha de S.Paulo, it was also found that 58 percent of Brazlians wanted to oust interim President Michel Temer. Temer, Rousseff’s former Vice President, took over from Rousseff after her suspension and resulting impeachment, and will remain in charge until the next presidential election in 2018.
To the outside world, Temer inherited a country that welcomed the world with open arms, a country that has the ninth best economy in the world. Yet Brazil itself, being a country that gave the mere illusion of security and happiness, could not extend the same warm welcome to Temer. In a break of protocol, Temer was skipped and then booed at the opening ceremony in Rio, suggesting that Temer is just as disliked as Rousseff and possibly even more corrupt.
As the Olympic torch reached Rio in August, it seemed that the Brazilian economy and political sphere, too, had gone up in flames.
Temer himself has been accused of fiscal mismanagement because he allegedly signed documents without authorization from Congress. In addition, he was found guilty of violating campaign finance limits after receiving an illicit US$400,000 campaign donation in 2012 from Petrobras. Not only does this create the possibility of canceling the 2014 election results and calling a new vote (although this seems unlikely due to the current instability of Brazilian politics), but it also implicates Temer in Operation Car Wash, Brazil’s biggest corruption scandal to date. Tie this reality in with the fact that upon entering office, he named a Cabinet of all-white men in a country that is more than 50 percent non-white and 52 percent female, it seems that Brazilian democracy has started to fail.
Not only has the Brazilian presidency been plagued by corruption and scandal, but the Senate and Cabinet have too. Since April 2016, Brazil has impeached a president, replaced her with one facing allegations of corruption, jailed the speaker of the house, removed five Cabinet members due to corruption, and tried removed the Senate leader, Renan Calheiros, because of embezzlement. In the aftermath of the Olympic Games, Calheiros was charged with embezzling US$1.7 billion. After Calheiros refused to step down in December 2016, the Supreme Court ruled that he could remain Senate leader, but was no longer eligible to be second-in-line to the presidency while the investigation was under-way. The stand-off in the Brazilian Senate was one that political analysts had not seen since the military launched a coup in 1964 that led to two decades of military rule. Combine this with the failure of an anti-corruption bill that would have put in place penalties for judges that have overstepped their bounds, and it is clear that Brazilian democracy has reached a dangerous level. This fight has further destabilized the Brazilian economy, which investors have feared to return to since the political turmoil preceding Olympic Games.
However, upon closer inspection, it becomes evident that the failure lies not in the corruption and lack of transparency that plagues the elected elite, but in the electoral process itself. How can one expect Brazilian politics to be free from corruption when its entire electoral process is manipulated through the use of kickbacks, illicit funds, and government contracts? Rousseff’s impeachment sheds light on more than just her own manipulation; it reveals the structural weaknesses of Brazil’s entire democracy.
In the Brazilian political system, individual parties do not decide who wins a seat for their party. Instead, to win a seat in the lower house, candidates must win the most number of votes, essentially making the electoral process a popularity contest—a contest that big companies are often happy to help candidates win. In exchange for “investing” in candidates’ campaigns, companies expect to receive “help” in winning government contracts. After “helping” these companies, such as the building and construction ones implicated in Operation Car Wash, politicians receive kickbacks that either fund further campaigns or find their way to offshore bank accounts. Not only does this candidate-centered electoral process induce corruption, but it also creates both intra- and inter-party competition that leads to party polarization.
To make matters worse, politicians are often paid off to help certain bills pass through Parliament. With over 25 political parties currently holding seats in the lower house, progress would be nearly impossible unless individuals are paid off to vote a certain way. Thus, it is unsurprising that politics in post-Olympic Brazil are failing; the democratic process was doomed from the start.
There is a silver lining - and not one that will line the pockets of more politicians and businessmen.
The issue with Brazilian politics today lies in the fact that the economy and politics exist in a relationship that benefits the politicians and few elites, but becomes parasitic for the rest of the Brazilian population. However, there is a silver lining – and not one that will line the pockets of more politicians and businessmen. The Brazilian democracy is only thirty years old, and seems to be taking steps to become more transparent and accountable. In late 2015, Brazil’s Supreme Court ruled that only the government and individuals could fund campaigns, making corruption and kickbacks within the electoral process less likely in recent years. Additionally, politicians have suggested several reforms for the electoral process in order to reduce corruption and overcome party fragmentation due to the candidate-centered system. One reform suggests the introduction of a moderately high (4 to 7 percent) national threshold vote in order to raise the bar for minor parties, while simultaneously adjusting the number of seats awarded to the leading parties. Another reform suggests the introduction of a mixed-member political system that would use more than one method to distribute legislative seats, in order to become more proportional in regards to party and district size. However, these reforms would require the approval of Congress, which is unlikely considering many members of Congress come from the same minor parties that benefit from the current electoral process. In another positive step towards transparency, prosecutors’ response to Operation Car Wash has discriminated against no one, including former President Lula. The Brazilian democracy is young and inexperienced. But perhaps it is learning too.