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Towels with images of Jair Bolsonaro and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva are hung for sale at a street stall in Belo Horizonte, Brazil, on Oct. 25, 2022. Far-right incumbent president Bolsonaro and leftist ex-president Lula will vie for the presidency of Brazil in a run-off election on Oct. 30.DOUGLAS MAGNO/AFP/Getty Images

Gregory Michener is an associate professor of government at Fundação Getulio Vargas’ Brazilian School of Public and Business Administration in Rio de Janeiro. This article represents the author’s position and not necessarily the institutional position of the FGV.

“The least worst choice” describes many democratic elections, but is a particularly apt descriptor for Sunday’s presidential runoff election between Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro and former president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (”Lula”). Brazilians will not only have to mark their ballots for one of two flawed candidates, but also decide which form of corruption they are willing to live with.

Brazilian presidents face the daunting task of cobbling together legislative majorities among approximately 30 parties, in what is by far the most fragmented Congress in the world. Mr. da Silva’s’s two administrations (2003-06 and 2007-11) were marred by incontrovertible legislative vote-buying.

In 2005, the Mensalao scandal (“Big monthly payment”), a cash-for-votes scheme, nearly brought down the government. Then in 2014, police discovered years of kickbacks from fake contracts in state-owned Petrobras, implicating Mr. da Silva and contributing to the impeachment of his Workers’ Party successor, president Dilma Rousseff. This last scandal represented the largest governmental corruption scandal ever revealed, anywhere – a theft over $11-billion Canadian.

Though Mr. da Silva is unarguably associated with legislative vote-buying, Mr. Bolsonaro has fallen into a similar trap. In 2020, journalist Breno Pires revealed Mr. Bolsonaro’s “secret budget”: $4-billion worth of amendments, devoid of transparency and legality, paid to legislators in exchange for legislative support.

Buying the allegiance of Brazil’s Congress is not only a matter of survival – Mr. Bolsonaro’s amendments staved off motions for impeachment – it is also a matter of efficacy: before “buying” the support of Congress, Mr. Bolsonaro had the lowest legislative success rate (31 per cent) of any president since Brazil’s 1988 redemocratization.

The second type of corruption, the political capture of key accountability institutions, is more exclusive to the actions of Mr. Bolsonaro. This is perhaps the grander of the two corruptions. Whereas legislative corruption is a means to an end – a means to obtain approval for a legislative agenda – political capture is an end in itself: the elimination of checks and balances.

When investigators and prosecutors lack independence, the state engages in a form of moral corruption, by omission. Yet in failing to go after improbity, the state also engages in pecuniary corruption by wasting precious taxpayer money. The cost of running Brazil’s sprawling government “accountability” complex partly explains why this country’s tax burden is on par with Canada’s, at around 35 per cent of GDP.

Mr. Bolsonaro has shown a marked proclivity for neutralizing accountability institutions, similar to other autocratic leaders. For example, in appointing the director of Brazil’s powerful public prosecutor, Mr. Bolsonaro flouted the time-honoured convention of selecting one the institution’s internal candidates, instead appointing a pliant figurehead.

Similarly, the President has demonstrated contempt for the Federal Police (akin to our RCMP), dismissing four different police chiefs since taking power. These actions partly respond to police investigations centred on his office-holding sons, some of whom are alleged to have become inexplicably wealthy over the past years. More recently, Mr. Bolsonaro has hinted at expanding the size of the Supreme Court, a classic autocratic ploy.

Ironically, even while Mr. Bolsonaro dabbles in authoritarian tactics, he accuses Mr. da Silva of supporting Latin American leftist dictators – from Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega to Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro.

Notwithstanding the corruption perpetrated under Mr. da Silva’s Workers’ Party and its ostensible admiration for leftist dictators, the governments of Mr. da Silva and Ms. Rousseff reinforced and mostly respected democratic norms and the independence of Brazil’s accountability institutions.

Mr. da Silva and Ms. Rousseff strengthened the judiciary, the federal police, and the comptroller general, passing laws on freedom of information, racketeering, and plea bargaining, among others. Paradoxically, and as Matthew Taylor and Luciano da Ros show in their recent book, Brazilian Politics on Trial, the Workers’ Party became ensnared in the very “web of accountability” it helped create.

In 2018, Mr. Bolsonaro predicated his electoral campaign on an anticorruption discourse reviling the graft of the Workers’ Party. Yet the capture of key accountability institutions over the past four years and a secret budget to buy legislative votes belie Mr. Bolsonaro’s commitment to ethical government.

Add to this a disastrous handling of the pandemic and grave environmental negligence, and the current President has little to offer voters beyond a halfway decent economic recovery. Sadly, faced with two bad choices, voters may find this enough.

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