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The political class in Brasília is up to its old tricks. A decade after a vast corruption scandal shook the nation, a string of recent moves by Congress and the Supreme Court is reigniting concerns about transparency, accountability and impunity in Latin America’s largest nation.

Front and centre has been a so-called “electoral reform”, spearheaded by Arthur Lira, speaker of the lower house. The legislation, which sailed through the lower house last month and now awaits a Senate vote, has been sold as simple tweaks and adjustments to the electoral system.

But the details tell a different story. If passed, the legislation would permit politicians to disclose their finances only after campaigns, not during as is currently required. It would also allow parties to use public electoral funds to buy or rent cars, boats and planes, as well as pay for their maintenance and fuel.

And perhaps, most significantly, it could enable a kind of “vote buying”. Under current rules, politicians have to disclose every individual who is contracted to work on campaigns. But under the proposed legislation, politicians would be permitted to hire people through employment agencies, without disclosing the names of individuals.

“Politicians will use these companies to legalise all kinds of payments during the campaign,” said Bruno Carazza, a professor at the Dom Cabral Foundation. “It is a measure against transparency. Politicians will pay citizens for their votes and declare this money was paid to companies to hire campaign workers.”

Brazilian Supreme Court justice Gilmar Mendes
Justice Gilmar Mendes last month shelved a Federal Police investigation into a suspected bribery case involving political allies of House Speaker Arthur Lira © Mauro Pimentel/AFP/Getty Images

In parallel to the reform, Congress is also pushing through an “amnesty bill” that could erase fines worth hundreds of millions of dollars, which political parties generated by failing to comply with electoral rules on quotas for female and non-white candidates.

The nation’s association for public prosecutors warned that the twin pieces of legislation represented a “serious step backward” and would “impact the transparency of Brazilian democracy”.

Adriana Ventura, one of just a handful of lawmakers to vote against the electoral reform, put it more starkly: “What we are talking about here is an increase in impunity for those who do illegal things with money.”

Questionable electoral activities are not the only red flag. Consecutive actions by Supreme Court judges have signalled there is little or no appetite for corruption investigations involving the political class.

Gilmar Mendes, one of the court’s 11 justices, last month shelved a Federal Police investigation into a suspected bribery case involving political allies of House Speaker Lira. The judge reasoned the probe undermined Lira’s right as a lawmaker to parliamentary immunity.

Around the same time, almost out of the blue, Dias Toffoli — another top judge — decided to nullify vast amounts of evidence obtained in the decade-old Lava Jato, or car wash, corruption investigation. He then ordered the investigation of prosecutors who had struck the plea bargains to obtain the evidence in question.

Running over several years, the Lava Jato probe revealed a vast contracts-for-kickbacks network involving billions of dollars and scores of senior politicians and businesspeople. Many received jail sentences and, at the time, the investigation was credited with tackling Brazil’s culture of political impunity. The US Treasury called it “the largest foreign bribery case in history”.

Its legacy, however, was deeply tarnished by revelations about prosecutorial over-reach and political bias, including in an investigation of now president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva. The leftwing leader spent almost two years in prison as a result of the probe. His conviction was later annulled by the supreme court.

In his ruling last month, Toffoli repeated familiar points that Lava Jato “disrespected due legal process and acted with bias”. His decision, however, to disinter a long-buried investigation only to put a further nail into its coffin sent a clear message: the days of free-ranging investigations are over. To critics, it was another sign the court was blowing with the political winds.

“We’re in another round of reversing all the decisions that shook the country during Lava Jato,” said Carazza. “The political system already took a lot of measures to restore its position and now we have another chapter with the Supreme Court disregarding all the evidence.”

A report by the OECD last week said Brazil needed “urgent key reforms” in the fight against corruption, highlighting the “limited level of enforcement”, de facto impunity and perceived threats to the independence of prosecutors in foreign bribery cases.

Matias Spektor, a professor at the Getulio Vargas Foundation, said that the “fight against corruption will no longer be a dominant theme in Brazilian politics”.

“Order, as it were, has been restored. And this restoration has entailed the curtailing of the powers to investigate and prosecute professional politicians,” he said.

But he added that much of the blame for this was due to the “questionable or illegal and politically motivated” actions of the Lava Jato task force. “In the end, this did enormous damage to the cause of clean politics.”

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