For too long, there has been little accountability in Brazilian politics. Corrupt politicians often benefit from both an intricate and lax judicial system and public opinion that seems to be, in many cases, overly lenient toward cases of corruption. The proverb that “Caesar’s wife must be above suspicion” could apply to every Brazilian politician—and not just their spouses. Many suspicious or even formally suspected figures lurk in the sizable shadow of doubt that looms over the country’s political landscape. Almost 40 percent of Brazil’s lawmakers are currently under some kind of investigation.
Beneath this blanket of impunity, though, some promising and underlying trends suggest a glimmer of hope. Judicial and investigative institutions, while still imperfect, have grown stronger in recent years. Independent judges and prosecutors have more legal tools at their disposal to uncover elaborate corruption schemes involving large swathes of the country’s political class and business elites. The ongoing investigation into kickbacks at the state run energy giant, Petrobras, known as “operation car wash,” is the clearest example. For the first time in Brazil’s history, powerful politicians have been taken to court and, in several cases, convicted.
There have also been encouraging evolutions in public opinion. Many polls and other research show that Brazilians have become more concerned with corruption. This may be partially explained by the impressive process of poverty alleviation and increase in standards of living, driven by several years of above-average economic growth rates and successful social policies that brought millions of Brazilians out of poverty and ultimately led to the rise of a new and more emboldened middle class. With more and better jobs available and higher levels of income, voter preferences tend to shift from core economic issues of jobs and income and toward other issues such as the quality of education, health care, transportation and the rule of law, which in Brazil’s case more or less means corruption. Brazil’s current leaders are not used to addressing these new demands and living up to higher expectations.