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Political accountability in Brazil

Timothy J. Power and Matthew M. Taylor

Corruption in the country is systemic, and coupled with widespread impunity.

Budget dwarves, bloodsuckers, the anaconda, and the big monthly allowance, or mensalão. These are but a few of the colourful names of scandals that have hit the Brazilian political scene since the transition to democracy, illustrating both the enormous public repercussions of corruption in contemporary Brazil and its high costs to the body politic. Over the past two years, a string of videos have shown the governor and several state assembly members of the Distrito Federal allegedly receiving bribes. Recurring scandals such as these have become a regular part of democratic discourse, with important effects not only on the efficacy of policy-making, but also on public views of democracy. Polls show that Brazilians remain largely confident that democracy is the best possible political regime. Yet in part because of the ongoing drumbeat of scandal, polls also show a steady decline in trust in government institutions over the past generation.

Accountability, meanwhile, has been sorely missing or inadequate, with existing institutions unable to either formally punish or clear the names of the accused. Scandals come and go, but a host of actors implicated in the past remain firmly ensconced in both state and national politics. The effects of this absence of accountability are both political and economic, with important repercussions for the world's fourth largest democracy and Latin America's leading economic engine.

This is not to say that nothing is being done to confront the issue. Brazil has seen a remarkable evolution in its accountability institutions since the transition from democracy began in earnest in the early 1980s. Several anti-corruption bureaucracies were created from scratch, such as the Federal Comptroller's Office (CGU), others were transformed beyond recognition, such as the Federal Police and the Public Prosecutorial Service (Ministério Público), and the underlying legislation that governs accountability has been rewritten in important ways. Simultaneously, structural changes, such as economic stabilization and greater integration with the world economy, have combined with the effects of democratization, such as the mobilization of civil society and the deepening of press freedom, to improve transparency and make corruption more visible to the public.

Students at an anti-corruption rally in Brasília, April 22, 2010.

Photo: Marcello Casal Jr., Agência Brasil
Students at an anti-corruption rally in Brasília, April 22, 2010.

Yet impunity still reigns, with important effects on the transmission of corrupt practices and corrupt actors across the political realm, rising from state to federal office and across all three branches of government. The electoral system, the courts, and even law enforcement itself have been plagued by corrupt practices that often meld together with other forms of criminal and violent behaviour. Impunity is in itself almost as great a problem as corruption, as Steve Morris pointed out when he referred to impunity as corruption's "evil twin" in his 2009 book on corruption in Mexico. Corruption destroys trust, but impunity compounds the error by eroding confidence in all politicians and perhaps in the political system itself.

Given the enormous economic, political and social costs of corruption and impunity, why has Brazil proved unable to effectively address the problem, and impose accountability effectively?

In Corruption and Democracy in Brazil: The Struggle for Accountability, we address these issues together with a team of leading Brazil scholars. The volume seeks to understand how the "web" of accountability institutions —as coined by Scott Mainwaring and Christopher Welna in 2003— functions in Brazil, and how it has influenced the patterns and prevalence of political corruption under democracy. Our contributors look not only at individual accountability institutions, but also at how these institutions work in tandem, focusing on country-specific interactions and idiosyncrasies.

Our concern is with interdependence: of the accountability process (oversight, investigation and sanction); of the government and civil society institutions involved in imposing accountability; and of different types of sanctions, be they political (e.g. congressional censure), electoral (e.g. failure to win re-election), reputational (e.g. negative media coverage), or legal (e.g. criminal prosecution). While there are indeed important weaknesses in many of Brazil's accountability institutions, we argue that the root causes of impunity arise from various pathologies of interdependence, which shape the incentives facing both accountability institutions and their targets.

Some contributors look at electoral dynamics, public opinion and the way individual voters perceive and punish wrongdoing. Others focus on dimensions of accountability such as performance of media, accounting institutions, police, prosecutors and courts. They jointly address four frequently-cited causes of corruption and impunity in Brazil: the executive-dominated process of coalition formation, which undermines traditional checks and balances; the electoral system and its effects on both campaign finance and electoral accountability; the ineffective court system, which provides enormous margin for dilatory appeals and important privileges to elected officials; and federalism, which permits corrupt practices to percolate from local and state governments up to the federal government.

We find that some problems of impunity are an outcome of individual institutional weaknesses —for example, incomplete or purposefully weak laws, inefficient courts, or politically dominated media in some states. But the larger problem is systemic, driven by the web's magnification of these individual weaknesses and by the difficulty any institution has in fully dispatching accountability functions single-handedly. This leads to compensatory strategies by which various bureaucracies have sought to overcome the weakness of their peer institutions. Sometimes, these strategies seek to bypass or minimize the participation of peer institutions that are perceived to be corrupt or ineffective. Oftentimes, compensatory sanctions are used, with bureaucracies implementing their own relatively weak but certain sanctions, such as leaks to the press or administrative fines, over more punitive but highly uncertain sanctions by peer institutions, such as the courts. When these compensatory moves are summed across institutions, their net effect is to limit accountability, even as they increase public awareness of corrupt practices.

Despite the pernicious effects of repeated scandals on public opinion, they have nonetheless led to unexpected gains by driving incremental reforms, activating civil society and leading to the creation of new legislation. This is not always an orderly process, and it does not promise wholesale improvements in the short run. But the marginal gains it has provided may nonetheless prove to be more effective and lasting than any great anti-corruption campaign led from above. Indeed, while dissatisfaction with politicians is high, and popular beliefs about corruption are dispiriting, the view from the wide-angle lens of the past generation suggests an enormous improvement in the provision of the public good of accountability. With luck and persistence, these effects will build on themselves, increasing the overall effectiveness of the web of accountability and increasing citizen satisfaction with democratic politics.

Timothy J. Power is Director of the Latin American Centre at the University of Oxford. Matthew M. Taylor is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of São Paulo, Brazil. Their book Corruption and Democracy in Brazil: The Struggle for Accountability will be released later in April by the University of Notre Dame Press (http://undpress. nd.edu/book/P01452). 

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