Bolsonaro: anti-corruption messiah or just another populist?

Will Brazil’s tough-talking president-elect walk the walk on fighting corruption?


On 27 October 2018, Brazilians elected the far-right candidate Jair Messias Bolsonaro as the country’s next president. Bolsonaro defeated his opponent Fernando Haddad from the leftist Workers’ Party (PT), which governed the country for 14 years (2002-2016). A former army captain and seasoned parliamentarian, Bolsonaro, whose middle name translates to messiah, put the fight against corruption front and center during his campaign.

Bolsonaro’s emphasis on tackling what he calls Brazil’s “ethical crisis” should come as no surprise for a country that occupies the less than flattering 96th place out of 180 countries in Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index. Brazil has even contributed new words to the global corruption lexicon: jeitinho, a way of getting things done that often involves illegal payments; caixa dois, an undeclared “second cash register” that companies maintain for bribes; and dolero, a black money dealer who launders cash on behalf of the rich and powerful.

Perhaps more importantly, Brazil has been home to one of the biggest corruption investigations in recent history. Operação Lava Jato, or Car Wash, launched in 2014, uncovered a multi-billion-dollar scheme to rig bids for contracts between private firms and Brazil’s oil giant Petrobras. The Car Wash has shaken Brazil’s political establishment to its foundations, claiming dozens of high-profile casualties. The most prominent of these was the former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, who was jailed for 12 years in 2018 on corruption and money laundering charges. The scandal also engulfed multiple Western companies with operations in the country.

Untarnished by these scandals, Bolsonaro used his outsider image to ride the waves of anti-corruption and anti-establishment sentiment to victory. Although his critics have highlighted his autocratic instincts as a potential roadblock to effective governance, at least when it comes to anti-corruption, Bolsonaro has wasted no time showing that he means business. Only a week after the vote, Sérgio Fernando Moro, the prominent anti-corruption judge and the main architect of the Lava Jato investigation, was announced as the next justice minister. As the future head of a planned super ministério combining the ministries of justice and public security, Moro will have ample tools at his disposal to cement his legacy as an anti-corruption crusader.

With popular support behind him and emboldened by Bolsonaro’s no-holds-barred approach to crime, Moro has already mooted a set of tougher anti-corruption laws based on consultations with Transparency International and the law faculty of Brazil’s prestigious Fundação Getúlio Vargas. Among the proposed amendments are measures to make imprisonment easier after conviction on corruption-related crimes, restrict the statute of limitations that apply to such cases, and build an online portal to track public expenditures with transparency. Enhanced enforcement is also on the cards, with Bolsonaro likely to make examples of companies – whether local or foreign – that engage in unethical behavior. However, some fear his inflammatory and populist rhetoric could undermine the rule of law, democratic institutions and press freedom crucial to exposing corruption in the first place.

As Bolsonaro takes the keys to Brasília’s Planalto Palace, the stakes are high for investors looking to capitalize on opportunities in the world’s eighth largest economy. Brazil has always been a complex place to conduct business. But choosing the right local partner has never been so business-critical.