As Operation Car Wash (Lava Jato) advanced, analysts were unanimous in one assessment: politicians would go down without a fight. While the Brazilian Congress tried to vote a few bills in favor of the political class, nothing is like the current offensive by politicians to curb investigation powers from prosecutors and federal marshals, and let themselves off the hook.
Checks and balances? Forget about it.
After the Supreme Court ordered investigations against 108 politicians – including Brazil’s last three presidents, 39 members of the House, and more than a third of the Senate – Congress has moved in for a counter attack. The principal ideas ready to be voted include an amnesty for electoral crimes, gag orders against prosecutors, and more public money for parties. Here are the main topics of the agenda:
1. Political reform
When crisis strikes, the Brazilian Congress immediately pulls a bill to reform the political system. For decades, though, several projects have dragged on without a vote. Now, though, politicians want to change the rules of the political system.
The political establishment claims that it is a victim of the ultra-competitive electoral system, which forces candidates to spend fortunes on campaigns. To correct that, a congressman has proposed to make taxpayers foot that bill. A fund of 3.9 billion BRL would finance the 2018 campaigns.
It’s like Italian writer Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa said in The Leopard: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.”
2. Amnesty for the corrupt
For months, the Brazilian Congress has flirted with a bill to grant amnesty to politicians and parties who benefited from the use of undeclared campaign funds. While Senate President Eunício Oliveira said that the project won’t be submitted to vote, things have changed since his fellow Senator Valdir Raupp officially became a defendant in a corruption case.
The House also wants to include a bill to pardon not only the use undeclared funds but also the use of illicit money. Apparently, the only way to prevent politicians from committing crimes is by making everything legal.
3. Gag orders
Back in November, Congress tried to pass a bizarre anti-corruption legislation. Not only it was lenient on the corruption, but also harsh on investigators. However, it ignited a series of protests and the Supreme Court sent the bill back to its initial stages.
Now, Congress wants to resurrect the project that would punish judges and prosecutors who have abused their authority. But the concept of “abuse” is quite broad. It includes making it illegal for the police to bring suspects in for questioning without warning.
It is impossible not to see that as an act of intimidation against Brazil’s investigatory institutions.
As Operation Car Wash advances, it is difficult to believe that protest might prevent Congress from acting on its own behalf this time. As political scientist David Fleischer told UOL, “congressmen are more interested in saving their own butts.”
Especially since the Supreme Court could revoke the politicians’ legal privileges in May. Currently, only the overwhelmed Supreme Court can prosecute and try federal elected officials. Due to the massive workload of Justices, cases can stall for years, sometimes past the statute of limitations. If politicians start standing trial in regular courts, their days of impunity could be over.
Parallels between Operation Car Wash and Italy’s Operation Clean Hands of the 1990s are inevitable. In Italy, despite a long list of temporary arrest orders and criminal charges against thousands of people, there were only a few convictions due to the slow pace, maneuvers, and loopholes within the judiciary system.
The political void created in Italy did not lead to the rise of cleaner politicians. Corruption scandals, such as the ones surrounding former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, continued to be part of the Italian political landscape.
Indeed, it had the opposite effect: it seemed to have increased tolerance for corruption. And that could also happen in Brazil.