Bolsonaro’s campaign relies on ‘secret budget’ payoffs to win Brazil’s election

When historians write books about why so many Brazilians voted for the far-right they will justifiably focus on ideological, political and social issues. But there is another key reason why President Jair Bolsonaro is still competitive as Sunday’s run-off ballot approaches: he’s handing out billions from a government slush fund.

The fund is known as the “secret budget” because there is little or no oversight over where the money goes once it is handed to lawmakers.

Worth 19bn reais per year (£3.1bn), the fund amounts to around one-fifth of the government’s entire discretionary spending.

“It is the biggest corruption scandal on the face of the earth,” said Simone Tebet, the conservative senator who finished third in the first-round ballot on 2 October.

With just days to go before Sunday’s run-off between Bolsonaro and leftist challenger Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, the budget’s workings – and other discretionary outlays – are coming under scrutiny.

The broad front that is campaigning against Bolsonaro’s re-election has made it a centrepiece of their last-ditch assault to guarantee a Lula win. The challenger won the first round by 48.4% to 43.2% and remains slightly ahead in the polls.

“This is a massive communication failure that is only now beginning to be fixed,” said Monica de Bolle, an economist who has produced a series of videos explaining the scheme. “Lots of people are now explaining that the secret budget means embezzlement.”

Government projects are normally put out to tender and the companies who win the bid must pass basic legal checks before being approved.

The secret budget is designed to avoid such transparency; powerful lawmakers can give money to whoever they choose.

That has led to questionable handouts that critics say are flimsy covers for corruption.

Former environment minister Marina Silva said the head of Congress, Bolsonaro ally Arthur Lira, had signed off on a R$26m project to buy robotics for a school in his home state. The school does not have running water or electricity, but the overpriced equipment came from a firm owned by Lira’s acquaintances, Silva said.

A federal police investigation last week revealed that a town of 11,000 inhabitants that was given money for health programs registered 12,700 hand X-rays in one year; another town of 6,700 people got cash for 27,000 prostate exams.

And in one of the most notorious cases, the mother of Ciro Nogueira, Bolsonaro’s chief of staff, was given R$399m for her pet projects when she replaced her son after he took leave of absence from the senate.

Some 198 of the 225 deputies given money from the secret budget were from far-right or centre right parties, according to a count in the magazine Piauí.

De Bolle said social programs in next year’s budget have been slashed because cash is being diverted to Bolsonaro’s allies.

Money for a pharmacy program that provides cut prices on prescriptions for the poor has been cut by 60%; the budget for child care centres fell from 100 million to 2.5 million; the budget for the Science and Technology Ministry was slashed by 87%.

Funding was cut from a free school milk program in the impoverished north-east, for Women’s Programs, for fighting cancer and for Aids prevention.

“All this to give money to lawmakers,” said de Bolle, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. “All this so Bolsonaro can get re-elected.”

At the same time, the former army captain has sought to buy favours by increasing monthly assistance packages.

His government normally gives R$400 a month to the poorest families but he upped that to R$600 in August, the first month of the election campaign.

The number of people who receive the monthly stipend also rose in the months before the ballot. Taxi and truck drivers, two bastions of Bolsonaro support, were also given additional aid.

Bolsonaro has openly admitted he gave money to legislators, which is ironic given his criticism of a similar scandal that almost brought down his opponent in 2005.

The then-president Lula survived a vote-buying scandal called the Mensalão (or big monthly payment) but it irrevocably damaged the Worker’s Party’s credibility.

The party stresses their scandal involved a tiny fraction of the amount divvied out in the secret budget and Lula has promised that if elected he wants to retake control of spending from Congress.

The Guardian