Until relatively recently, Brazil and South Africa looked great. Their economies were booming and investors were flocking in. Seeking sharks (South Africa) or soccer (Brazil), tourists helped fuel diversified economies. Their democracies showed the power of elections in serving public aspirations.
But today, things are far less rosy. Because today, the veil has been broken and the corruption of these democracies has been exposed.
In Brazil, the massive Petrobras scandal has now engulfed President Dilma Rousseff. That scandal, in which many millions in kickbacks were paid from the national energy company to many politicians, has rocked Brazilian political life. But making matters worse, Rousseff — already facing impeachment for possible budget gimmickry — has responded by appointing former President Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva to her cabinet. And the available evidence suggests she may be engaged in a political cover-up. That’s because Lula is himself under investigation for corruption. But if he joins the government, he will be effectively immune from prosecution. At the same time, Lula retains immense political influence and may be able to help Rousseff to navigate her way out of her own scandals. In short, the situation reeks of political dealing to evade the rule of law. While a judge has put a hold on Lula’s appointment, Brazilians are understandably furious. Millions are marching for Rousseff to step down. They know their democracy is grievously wounded.
Brazils President Dilma Rousseff talks with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva during his swearing-in ceremony as the chief of staff, at the Planalto presidential palace, in Brasilia, Brazil, Thursday, March 17, 2016. Silva was sworn in as his successors chief of staff on Thursday and Rousseff insisted he would help put the troubled country back on track and denounced attempts to oust her. (AP Photo/Eraldo Peres)Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff talks with former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. Both are under investigation for corruption. | Photo: AP
In South Africa, things are similar with President Jacob Zuma facing allegations of systemic corruption. While the president is no newcomer to scandal, this time the evidence suggests a deep rot at the very heart of his ANC political movement. The allegations suggest Zuma has been using his office for the ambitions of a powerful business family. And the specific details are astonishing. Zuma may well have fired ministers for their failure to accede to corruption. If nothing else, Zuma’s flippant amusement at his own scandal is a slap in the face to the legacy of Nelson Mandela.
Regardless, Brazil and South Africa — and incidentally, Europe — remind us about governance and society. First, they’re proving the critical importance of a strong independent judiciary. Here, while Brazil’s judiciary is finally grappling with the sustained rot of the political class, it still remains too politicized and subject to external pressure.
In South Africa, however, law enforcement’s efforts to keep political corruption in check are frankly pathetic. And that’s not by accident. In recent years, South Africa’s government has disbanded and de-toothed elite law enforcement agencies that were established to prevent corruption at the top of society. This insulated politicians from judicial scrutiny.
Consider that in the United States, these allegations would meet quick investigation by the FBI and likely prosecutions. If nothing else, the U.S. public reaction to this political rot would mean impeachment proceedings. But we’re wrong to take that power for granted. In South Africa and Brazil, millions of protesters have thus far been able to achieve public accountability of their governments. And that’s because the political class genuinely believes they can do what they have always done — push the law out of the way and carry on as usual. They may be right.
South African president Jacob Zuma, answers questions in parliament from the DA, Democratic Alliance political party in Cape Town, South Africa, Thursday, March 17, 2016. In a tumultuous session of Parliament on Thursday, South Africa’s president rejected allegations that he is influenced by a wealthy business family, saying that he is in charge of the appointment of Cabinet ministers. (AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam)South African president Jacob Zuma is under pressure to resign after accusations that his administration has been primarily influenced by a powerful business family, the Guptas. | Photo: AP
Thus, as we look to support democratic accountability abroad, we must also remind ourselves of the constant imperative of domestic introspection. Consider President’s Obama’s executive action on immigration, and current pressure on the U.S. Senate to yield to his Supreme Court nominee. This is executive power that would seek to subjugate the legislative and judicial branches of government. Remind yourself of when the president used the Supreme Court as a prop during his 2010 State of the Union address. As I wrote in 2013, “That scene of cloaked justices surrounded by baying Democrats should have troubled all Americans. It said something stunning that the President of the United States, let alone a distinguished graduate of Harvard Law School, would deliberately create such a spectacle. Churned in this theatre of absurdity, the separation of powers was rendered a near farce.”
The lesson: democracy requires our constant vigilance as well as powerful institutions. Of course, it isn’t just liberals. As I’ve noted for Opportunity Lives, conservatives must more readily oppose cronyism.
Nevertheless, we are lucky for our founders. Our balancing of power defines our politics. Absent that, the road to corruption is left open.
Tom Rogan is a Senior Contributor for Opportunity Lives and writes for National Review. He is a panelist on The McLaughlin Group and a senior fellow at the Steamboat Institute. Follow him on Twitter @TomRtweets.