Rajika Jayatilake finds that Operation Car Wash is feared by the wealthy and powerful

Hypocrisy is the audacity to preach integrity from a den of corruption, observed American football, basketball and baseball player Wes Fesler. Needless to say, contemporary society everywhere is brimming with hypocrisy, and nowhere is it truer than among politicians. They come into power through the people’s vote by promising a better tomorrow. But they often do so only for themselves.

Take the case of the former President of Brazil Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (known simply as Lula). Former US President Barack Obama once referred to him as “the most popular politician on Earth.” Then he (Lula) was found guilty of accepting a beachfront apartment from Latin America’s largest construction conglomerate Odebrecht and investigated for money laundering in Operação Lava Jato (Operation Car Wash), which began in March 2014.

Lula was recently sentenced to nine and a half years in prison. “No matter how important you are, no one is above the law,” said Judge Sérgio Moro as he sentenced him.

Sentencing a former president is the climax of Brazil’s Operation Car Wash – probably the largest anti-corruption investigation in the world. Once trapped in a culture of impunity, Brazilians now demand honesty and transparency from their leaders.

Operation Car Wash exposed a massive corruption network with Odebrecht apparently exploiting contracts at Brazil’s state run oil company Petrobras through graft. As investigators dug deeper, they discovered that practically all Brazil’s political campaigns were funded by bribes. Brazilian journalist Renata Lo Prete commented that Brazilian politics was living under “the rule of Operation Car Wash.”

Now, even before celebrating his first anniversary as Brazil’s new President, Michel Temer has become the country’s first incumbent head of state to be indicted. When indicting Temer in the Supreme Court, Attorney General Ricardo Janot charged that he (Temer) had accepted millions of dollars in bribes from the world’s largest meat processor JBS.

He accused Temer of fooling Brazilian citizens and compromising the country’s reputation. Though charged with bribery, Temer’s allies in Congress prevented him facing the charges. But Janot is expected to charge him again – this time with obstruction of justice – that will bring about another congressional vote.

While Temer received substantial support from lawmakers the first time around, that implicit loyalty might dwindle as the country’s general election draws near.

Dilma Rousseff, Temer’s predecessor who was impeached in May last year, remarked that her successor Temer is accused of graver crimes than those for which she was removed from office. Several of Temer’s close associates are also serving jail terms and his approval ratings among voters slumped to seven percent – the lowest for any Brazilian president in 30 years.

Brazil’s democracy is at a fledgling stage, having been restored about 25 years ago. Yet, the system is flawed by so many political parties relying on the need for massive funding for their campaigns. The snowballing Operation Car Wash is tumbling into hidden political corruption and inevitably, there’s opposition to the effort to clean up.

As more politicians are exposed for being corrupt, Operation Car Wash appears to be struggling to survive. Temer’s new Minister of Justice disbanded the task force that came under the Federal Police.

While Operation Car Wash will continue its work, investigators will not work exclusively on related cases. Meanwhile, new investigators are to be brought on board. Even though the government maintains this change will have no effect on ongoing investigations, Car Wash prosecutors charge that it is deliberately dismantling the operation.

Following Brazil’s last president’s fall from grace, the country’s lawmakers tried twice over to distance themselves from prosecution for corruption offences relating to campaign finances. But they failed due to relentless media and public pressure. In fact, media pressure and consistent exposure – together with a few left oriented parties and a section of the judiciary – continue to keep Operation Car Wash alive.

Polls reveal that despite the government trying to muzzle the investigation, it is ‘wildly popular.’ Surveys also indicate that even as Temer’s popularity dips, jailed ex-president Lula leads comfortably among potential candidates for the 2018 election. Judge Sérgio Moro who sentenced Lula appears to be the only Brazilian to come close to Lula’s popularity.

Over the past three years, Moro imprisoned dozens of high profile politicians and business leaders, and the list continues to grow. Brazilians are demanding a society that’s corruption free and honest public officials like Moro are working hard to meet the raised bar. Many Brazilians look upon Moro as a hero cleaning up their country, which is plagued by corruption.

“The Car Wash investigation cannot have just one hero. There are judges, prosecutors and detectives… But Moro is at the centre of it. Without him, we wouldn’t be where we are,” asserted the lead federal police investigator in the Car Wash Probe Igor Romário de Paula.

As the Chair of the Board of Transparency International Huguette Labelle observed: “Fighting corruption requires more than tools and programmes – it requires role models who inspire.”