In precisely the week marking the start of the trial of that emblematic figure of Kirchnerite corruption, businessman Lázaro Báez, there comes news from abroad whose regional impact includes raising a giant question-mark over an entire decade of media-driven investigation into political graft here – the surprise decision by Brazilian federal judge Sergio Moro to become Justice and Security minister in PresidentElect Jair Bolsonaro’s future administration. This is not just any ministerial nomination by any president-elect – almost singlehandedly the Curitiba judge (distant from Brazil’s centres of power) has made Lava Jato an international byword for the battle against political corruption on a par with Italy’s Mani Pulite (which also started with a car dealer, in the form of a janitorial contract). Bolsonaro, meanwhile, has reached power on the back of a lawless authoritarian discourse potentially on a collision course with the rule of law and civil rights.
Moro is giving off every appearance of having crossed the line, in more ways than one. In the colloquial sense because he is thus lending an entirely gratuitous credibility to the kneejerk retorts of “political persecution” presented by the targets of well-documented corruption charges (something that would apply here in Argentina too). Moro owes his international repute almost exclusively to being the judge who jailed and convicted two-term ex-president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for corruption in 2016 – how can anybody then not suspect that this ministry post is a reward for this particular service (and also the general discredit of the traditional political class to the benefit of fellow-outsider Bolsonaro)? But Moro is also crossing the line eyebrows in a more literal sense by thus straying beyond the judicial branch and breaching the separation of powers. In the past he has explicitly disavowed any political candidacy (perhaps precisely because he feared that this would bring his impartiality into question) in a series of interviews given over the past few years.
So how should we define this enormously prestigious judge after this latest move? As a kamikaze lunatic? An opportunist? An idealist? It is hard to believe that this rash entry into the political arena, so repeatedly denied previously, could be the result of a sudden rush of blood or a Bolsonaro charm offensive. Could it be that Moro is making this extremely risky move (of infinitely greater benefit to the president-elect than himself) not despite Bolsonaro being such an awful man but precisely because Bolsonaro is such an awful man – politically incorrect in every way (misogynistic, homophobic, contemptuous of human rights and the environment, you name it)? What would be better for Brazil, Moro might reason – accepting Bolsonaro’s invitation to run justice and security or see them placed in charge of some general or other ideological soulmate of the ex-paratrooper?
Moro’s concern would extend to both sides of his future portfolio. With only around 10 percent of Congress seats, Bolsonaro is already poised to bulldoze the legislative branch – Moro would presumably see his mission as preventing him from doing the same to the judicial. And on the security side, there are reasons for suspecting that while the anti-corruption drive championed by Moro was the respectable reason given by most voters for choosing Bolsonaro, the real attraction was his brutal approach against crime. In a country where the police systematically bump off street kids and where crime-fighting is increasingly militarised, a minister in uniform would bring the country even closer to returning to the 1964-85 dictatorship. Moro might further see himself as a general ombudsman for a far-right government – somewhat akin to Elisa Carrió’s role here in a Mauricio Macri administration initially dominated by CEOs. If this is Moro’s thinking, we can only wish him good luck and hope that we do not soon end up saying good night.
Meanwhile, the impact here remains to be seen. Differences between the two countries abound – should Carrió succeed in ousting Justice Minister Germán Garavano, could anybody imagine Macri naming the chief Kirchnerite corruption trial judge Claudio Bonadio in his place? – yet this sight of a presidentelect rewarding a judge eliminating his main rival could raise uncomfortable questions here.