Brazil's Presidential Race Has Its Own Donald Trump

Protest in São Paulo, August 2016. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/Rovena Rosa/Agência Brasil

The political shake-up in Brazil could create campaign opportunities for right-wing outsiders.

Judge Sérgio Moro might as well be the most powerful politician in Brazil. Former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is arguably the most popular.

When the two men faced off on May 10 in the southern city of Curitiba, the stakes couldn’t have been higher: survival of Brazil’s fragile democracy less than a generation after emerging from a military dictatorship.

Moro is not a politician. He is a federal judge who is leading a three-year investigation that already has implicated hundreds of officials of all major political parties in a massive bribery scheme, which is shocking even to those Brazilians who are accustomed to their country’s corrupt political culture.

Lula, Brazil’s president from 2003–10, is gearing up to seek a third term in next year’s election as the candidate of the leftist Workers’ Party. Lula may be leading in the polls, but he is also facing charges of bribery, money laundering, influence peddling and obstruction of justice. If convicted of those charges, then he could go to prison rather than the Planalto Palace in Brasilia.

The probe—known as Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash)—has bitterly divided Brazilian society, sparked massive demonstrations across the country and helped bring down a president: Dilma Rousseff, Lula’s former chief of staff and successor. Now, it’s leaving many to wonder whether Brazil can shed its disgraced political class without also shedding more than thirty years of progress toward democratic stability.

Many Brazilians hail Moro for cracking the shell of impunity that has shielded corrupt politicians from accountability, and there have been calls for him to seek the presidency, an offer he has so far declined. Even without that, Time, Fortune and Bloomberg Businessweek all have named him as one of the world’s most influential leaders.

“Moro is the hero of the hour, bringing down all those thieves,” Diego de Aguiar, a municipal worker in Curitiba, told Bloomberg.

But others say the judge is just playing his own brand of dirty politics under the guise of justice. Lula’s supporters are still smarting from the impeachment and removal of Rousseff from office in August, which they insist was a coup. Some lawmakers who played a major role in the impeachment process are themselves implicated in the scandal. The leader of the impeachment push, Eduardo Cunha, former head of the lower house of Brazil’s Congress, is in prison, serving a fifteen-year sentence for taking bribes and trying to hide the money in secret bank accounts.

After he was questioned for more than five hours Wednesday, Lula’s lawyers called the session “a judicial process for political ends.”

The massive reach of the bribery scheme also has raised concerns about the stability of Latin America’s largest economy—and the world’s ninth-largest. Though Brazil is slowly recovering from a recession sparked in part by the investigation, the poisoned political atmosphere is likely to remain a drag. And the economic misery is deepening the political divide and eroding the consensus needed to craft effective policy solutions.

“Brazil is as divided as it ever has been since regaining democracy in 1985. The division of society into two antagonistic political camps, incapable of dialogue, is bad for any country,” wrote Sergio Fausto, executive superintendent of the Instituto Fundação Fernando Henrique Cardoso, in the Estado de São Paulo daily.

Meanwhile, the country is essentially leaderless, with caretaker president Michel Temer both widely unpopular and facing his own corruption accusations. In the last Datafolha poll, 64 percent of those surveyed said they would refuse to vote for him. A third of the ministers in his government also are under investigation.

João Pedro Stedile, leader of the left-wing Landless Workers’ Movement, or MST, said Wednesday that his group would take up a collection to buy Temer a plane ticket to Miami, “which is the place for all the world’s sons-of-bitches.”

Should Moro keep his promise and Lula find himself in prison, the 2018 field could be wide open for an outsider candidate untouched by the scandal, with some openly looking to the election of U.S. President Donald Trump for inspiration.

Joao Doria, mayor of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, is a millionaire businessman who hosted his country’s version of Trump’s “The Apprentice” reality-TV series. Upon taking office Jan. 1, he pledged to “respect ethics and transparency.”