This Man Is Playing a Big Role in Brazil’s Election—And He Isn’t Even on the Ballot

(Bloomberg) -- One of the decisive figures in Brazil’s Oct. 28 presidential vote may not be either man on the ballot.

Lionized by the right, loathed by most of the left, Sergio Moro, the judge who oversaw the sprawling Operation Carwash corruption investigation, has become a totemic figure. While frontrunner Jair Bolsonaro is claiming his mantle of incorruptibility, Fernando Haddad’s Workers’ Party is struggling to emerge from the association with the scandals exposed by Moro.

This Man Is Playing a Big Role in Brazil’s Election—And He Isn’t Even on the Ballot

The two candidates are enjoying equal airtime ahead of the runoff vote after emerging from a field of 13, affording many voters their first extended exposure to their ideas. Bolsonaro has been using Moro’s popular appeal and the broad support for anti-corruption measures as one of his more positive campaign messages, leaving behind some of his more controversial comments on minorities, and even democracy itself.

One of Bolsonaro’s recent television advertisements reviews many of Brazil’s ills, including corruption scandals that led to the arrest of several leading politicians from different parties. The clip wraps up with an image of the former paratrooper alongside Moro under a message that only the two “can confront all this." In an interview Tuesday, Bolsonaro said he wanted someone like Moro on the Supreme Court.

A spokesperson for Bolsonaro said the candidate built his own reputation and that there’s no strategic campaign objective behind the decision to feature Judge Moro’s image.

Brazilian Icon

The judge’s chiseled jawline and piercing gaze is emblazoned on the T-shirts, inflatable dolls and even Easter eggs of anti-corruption protesters.

This Man Is Playing a Big Role in Brazil’s Election—And He Isn’t Even on the Ballot

"When I speak to Bolsonaro’s supporters, they refer to Sergio Moro in almost religious terms," said Esther Solano, a professor of sociology at the Federal University of Sao Paulo who has carried out field research with the ex-Army captain’s voters. "They say Sergio Moro is tasked with the job of cleaning up Brazil."

The press office at Judge Moro’s court said that he wouldn’t comment during an election period.

National Shame

For Bolsonaro supporter Luiz Fernando Nascimento Megda, 49, a tax auditor in Brasilia, the corruption investigation has influenced his political choice.

"After Carwash, we’ve seen that the Workers’ Party government only succeeded in putting this country in the crime section of newspapers all over the world," he said. "As a Brazilian I will not accept us showing the rest of the world that we’re electing a prisoner’s puppet."

Operation Carwash was named for the gas station where the discovery of illicit payments led to far deeper corruption and it has dominated Brazilian politics since March 2014. The investigation has involved construction companies, banks, shipyards, prominent businessmen and leading politicians in Brazil and beyond -- and even contributed to the imprisonment of former President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a founding member of Haddad’s party.

Mass Ejection

With corruption scandals dominating the nightly news for years, a survey in June this year by pollster Datafolha found graft was Brazilians’ chief concern, along with health care. The same survey found almost seven in 10 Brazilians had no faith in Congress.

On Oct. 7, voters threw out over 47 percent of the lower house and over 85 percent of the senators up for election, the biggest shake-up of the 594-member Congress since 1986. Among those booted out were 25 legislators under investigation as part of Operation Carwash.

“Carwash was one of the winners of the election,” said Juliano Griebeler, a political analyst at the consulting firm Barral MJorge.

Moro took over the case in 2014 and, as members of the country’s elite were swept up in it, he became seen as a rare figure of probity by his supporters. The Netflix series “The Mechanism” fictionalized the travails of investigators and prosecutors as they labored to clean up the nation.

Bolsonaro’s platform doesn’t mention the probe by name, but highlights a “non-negotiable” commitment to transparency and the fight against corruption. The document also promises to bring a bill to Congress based on the “Ten Measures Against Corruption” first put forward by the public prosecutors’ office.

Pardon Promise

Senior figures in the Workers’ Party argue that Moro has singled out the party for punishment. The judge’s decision to release damning plea-bargain testimony about illicit payments to previous party election campaigns just days before the first round of voting angered many on the left.

This Man Is Playing a Big Role in Brazil’s Election—And He Isn’t Even on the Ballot

The party’s national president, Gleisi Hoffman, even described the judge as a criminal on Twitter. Meanwhile, Haddad’s running mate, Manuela D’Avila, from the Communist Party of Brazil, has said that she would pardon Lula were she to become president.

Such background noise -- along with Haddad’s frequent visits to Lula’s cell -- have undermined the candidate’s commitment to strengthen prosecutors and federal police in the battle against corruption.

Since the winnowing of the election field, Haddad has made no prison visits and insisted that only the judiciary, and not a future government, would decide Lula’s fate. Still, the former mayor of Sao Paulo has also acknowledged that his party’s history weighs on his prospects.

“This anti-Workers’ Party feeling has always existed in society,” he said in a radio interview Tuesday. "It’s obvious that corruption accusations have deepened this."

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