Democracy, Corruption and Trust

On the municipal election results…

Brazil’s first elections since Dilma’s impeachment are already being reported as a ‘slap‘ to the Workers’ Party (PT). This was always going to be the case. The governing party bore the brunt of anti-corruption protests, the Lava Jato investigations, and responsibility for recession. More interesting is the rise of another force – anti-politics. None-of-the-above may turn out to be the biggest winner.


In Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, millionaire businessman João Dória won an unprecedented absolute majority, heavily defeating PT’s Fernando Haddad. Dória’s appeal as successful businessman, non-politician and former host of Brazil’s version of The Apprentice did him favours in the current climate. But equally notable was that nul or white votes beat Haddad into second place. Indeed, the story was similar in mayoral elections across Brazil.

Four of the country’s five largest cities saw nul/white come in second place. Likewise in eight of the 20 biggest. Most remarkably, the protest vote came in first in three significant municipalities (all in the top 30 nationally): São Gonçalo (pop. 1m) and Nova Iguaçú (pop. 800k) in Greater Rio, and Osasco (pop. 700k) in Greater São Paulo. And this is without counting abstention rates that hovered around 20%. There were regional disparities, with abstention and blank votes in the Northeast region generally lower, while much higher in the metropolises of the Southeast.

This deserves further exploration later this week. But for now, a broader lens on trust in democracy. Brazil’s political crisis and anti-political wave seem like a part of global trends.

Yet Brazil operates on a different timescale. Attempts to fit it into ‘universal’ periodisations are mistaken. While democracy was being hollowed-out across the West in the 2000s, Brazil was living perhaps its greatest democratising moment (in a history hardly ennobled by them). While left critics rightly point out social movement and labour demobilisation during the PT’s period in office, by the standards of formal liberal democracy, this was a peak of institutional representation of popular wishes. At least at the executive level, a majority of Brazilians voted for representatives who promised improvements in standards of living for the majority and these were duly delivered. Yes, there was graft, vote-buying and so on, while oligarchical politics carried on as usual. But it still presented a contrast to the European or North American pattern of promising nothing and getting even less in return. So what happened?

The protests which erupted in June 2013 were testament to rising expectations coaxed from the previous decade’s success. The failure of public institutions to match up to these new aspirations then crashed into a severe economic downturn and resulted in the political crisis we see today. For all the ins and outs of political manoeuvring, the primary dynamic here is undeniable.

Indeed, for all that this is ostensibly “about corruption”, the defining feature is a loss of trust in establishment politics. Witness data about support for democracy from the latest Latinobarómetro:

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If we chart net support for democracy (pro-democracy, minus authoritarianism and ambivalence) alongside GDP per capita, the results are unsurprising: support for democracy accompanies GDP per capita figures.

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NB: Survey data on democracy is from the early part of the year. Therefore GDP per capita data has been taken from the preceding year (i.e. 2015’s democracy score is presented alongside 2014’s GDP figures). 2016 GDP per capita data is not yet available, but it will likely accompany 2016’s steep decline in net support for democracy (-23%, down from+22% in 2015).

This isn’t to suggest that support for democracy is inherently fickle and dependent on it ‘delivering’ economically. But they are not unconnected. And opinion surveys likely magnify this relationship (you’re struggling to get by, you see institutions not operating as well as they might, and you tell your interviewer you’re unsure about this whole democracy thing.)

Today’s election results should be seen in this light. But the deep impact of the anti-corruption crusade led by Judge Sérgio Moro should not be underestimated. Lava Jato is not just an investigation into massive graft. It’s also a media event, whose impartiality is deeply questionable. Even if its intentions were not partisan, its effects on the broader culture are. This is seen in the fall in PT candidates’ popularity – both in polling and in these municipal elections.

But worse than delegitimising the PT, the anti-corruption investigations (and the wave of protest they rode and helped direct and sustain) may be in the process of de-legitimising politics as a pursuit in itself. While political corruption is a betrayal of trust from those holding public office, anti-corruption politics (as opposed to anti-corruption policies) are themselves corrosive of trust. Moro, one notes, benefits from high approval ratings and even figures in putative 2018 presidential election surveys. But even he has seen his standing fall in the past months as his tactics seem to fall foul of the ethical high standards he ostensibly demands. If corruption seems to be everywhere, who can be trusted?

Trust is a fungible property. Loss of trust in one area can mean it gets displaced onto others. As representative institutions get called into question, people can displace trust into counter-majoritarian institutions, such as the judiciary.

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There is thus far no evidence of this in Brazil, and in fact the judiciary seems to have suffered from the same loss of trust affecting representative institutions. This may be a small mercy. A fully fleshed democracy requires trust in representatives, whatever the institutional configuration may be; and rule by judges is not that. But abstention and blank votes do not presage a re-engagement with politics. Anti-politics continues the winner for now.

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