Most Brazilians will tell you their country has a long and storied history of juicy political corruption scandals here in South America’s largest democracy.
On an almost yearly basis there is at least one major political corruption scandal that erupts into a national frenzy and points a spot light on the dark side of Brazilian politics.
In 2009, the ‘scandal of the year’ involved Jose Arruda, the then Governor of Federal District, which encompasses the capital city of Brasilia.
Arruda and his aides were caught on hidden camera stuffing their pockets (literally) with bundles of cash in a classic money-for-favours scandal. (Watch this local news report, in Portuguese, to see some of the video).
The scheme was broken-up by the federal police in an operation they called “Operation Pandora’s Box.” (The term Pandora’s Box comes from Greek mythology and was a jar that contained all the evils of the world inside).
Arruda and several others were jailed, and the scandal went down as just one of a long list that has embroiled the political world in Brazil in recent history.
But now the country is taking huge strides to wash away corruption in politics with a groundbreaking new law referred to as Ficha Limpa – which means ‘clean slate’ in English.
The law would permanently bar anybody from running for any political office (in municipal, state or federal elections) who has any corruption charges (or even allegations) pending against them.
But the law is even more far reaching, and bars candidates who have been expelled from any professional organisations, such as lawyers who have been kicked out of a bar association.
“Every country has political corruption of some sort - the United States, Germany, Israel - but what we are doing here in Brazil with this 'clean slate' law is to add morals to our electoral process and increase the quality of the candidates,” Luciano Santos, a lawyer who helped spearhead the law, told Al Jazeera.
“The candidates that remain in the election should be those who have a public life that meets – or exceeds - the standards to represent citizens and voters.”
The law has become a major theme in Brazil’s October 3 national elections, where over 22,500 candidates are running in elections that will determine the next president, all 513 seats in the lower house of congress, 54 of the 81 senate seats, all 26 state governorships and hundreds of other local state elections.
The Brazilian government accountability and audit agency handed over to the electoral court 4,922 names of candidates in the October election who potentially could be ruled ineligible for the sole reason of misuse of public funds during a previous term in elected office – one of the most common forms of political corruption in Brazil.
Add to that a much smaller number of candidates who have felony convictions, and the total number of candidates potentially at risk from expulsion from the new law could be over 5,000 – or slightly under 25 per cent of the total candidate pool in the October election.
While there are still a lot of unanswered questions about how the law will be implemented in the long term, it is being applauded by those organisations that track corruption.
“Although it will be necessary to ensure the full enforcement of the law before we can fully celebrate its impact, this legislation serves as a double-punch in the fight against corruption in Brazil,” Zoe Reiter, a senior programmes co-ordinator at Transparency International told Al Jazeera.
Origins of the Law
The roots of the law can be traced back to an organisation called the Movement to Combat Electoral Corruption (MCCE), an umbrella group comprising over 43 like-minded NGOs and organisations.
Campaigners from MCCE said few politicians wanted to sponsor an anti-corruption bill in congress, so the organisation took advantage of a little-known, and almost never implemented, ‘popular initiative’ clause in congress that says with signatures from one per cent of the Brazilian population a bill can be taken up in congress.
Only four bills in Brazilian history have reached congress in such a manner.
In September of last year, after 18 months of signature collecting, the law organisers forwarded to congress 1.7 million signatures. Soon after, another two million people registered their support for the bill online.
“At that point senators and lawmakers felt pressure to approve the law,” Santos said. “That is the importance of the popular initiative. The people’s will.”
On September 29 of last year, congressman Antonio Carlos Biscaia sponsored the bill in congress, so officially it will be recorded with his name on it (but unofficially it will always be known as a law from the people’s initiative).
On June 4, 2010 President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva signed the bill and three days later it became the law of the land.
The law is expected to close one of the major loopholes that has plagued the Brazilian electoral system, supporters say.
Many times a poltician accused of corruption or wrongdoing while in office simply resigns to avoid immediate prosecution and files an appeal to preserve their future in politics in the next election cycle.
“That appeals process could take up to 20 years,” Santos said.
“But in the meantime, they would run again in another election, because there was nothing preventing them from doing this. The new law bars anybody from office during this appeals process. That is a big step.”
Implementation of law complicated
While almost everyone agrees the law has all the right intentions, putting it into practice in October’s election has been challenging.
Many politicians accused of corruption still have their cases stuck in the bureaucratic judicial system, and have not been ‘formally’ charged with any crime.
So the first line of defence in determining whom is ineligible rests with the local public prosecutors office, and they have a short amount of time to make an initial ruling.
“In Rio de Janeiro state alone there are about 2,800 candidates running for public office in October’s election,” Silvana Batini, one of the prosecutors in the local office told Al Jazeera.
“We have a very short time to analyze cases. I have to make a ruling in 48 hours. And I have piles and piles of cases stacking up on my desk.
"There is an overload of work, but the responsibility is very high with the public regarding this new law.”
Candidates who have been ruled ineligible can ask for injunctions from a panel of judges at the regional electoral tribunal, and then later to the superior electoral tribunal.
Many candidates ruled ineligible continue to campaign while they wait for an appeal ruling, and several have even appealed all the way up to the supreme court.
But supporters say the difficulties are to be expected at this stage.
“It is a natural process taking place there has been resistance to the law form people who know they will be effected by it, but the law is going in a very positive direction.” Santos said.
“I do not think implementation is that difficult, it is just a matter of time.”
Making an Impact
Even with the problems implementing the law, it’s making a big impact.
One of the best known Brazilian politicians, Paulo Maluf, who was running for congress, on August 23 was ruled ineligible for the October election because of the new law.
Maluf is a former governor of Sao Paulo state, and twice a former mayor of the city of Sao Paulo whose political career dates back four decades in Brazil.
He has long been suspected of shady deals, only confirmed when an arrest warrant was issued for him in New York for fraud, conspiracy and theft. Interpol has added him, along with his son, Flavio Maluf, to their list of wanted men.
Maluf claims his innocence of any wrongdoing, and says he is just being made into an example of the law because he is so famous.
In another case, the electoral court is looking to use the new law to possibly bar Roseana Sarney, governor of Maranh?o state, in her re-election bid after charges of alleged wrongdoing.
The name Sarney is a political dynasty in Brazil. Roseana is the daughter of Jose Sarney, Brazil’s former president from 1985 to 1990, who has on three different occasions served as president of the senate, including presently, after replacing former senate president Renan Calheiros, who in 2007 was forced to resign after being accused of taking money from a lobbyists to pay for funds for a woman he was having an extra-marital affair with.
Jose Sarney has been fighting off his own corruption allegations himself.
(The clean slate law only applies to those politicians running for election or re-election, not those currently in office not running).
And in Rio de Janeiro, Anthony Garotinho, the former governor of the state who in 2002 garnered almost 18 per cent of the popular vote in a presidential run, is likely to be banned from his current congressional run by the new law after being ordered to jail recently for what investigators say were his ties to a mobster gang from years ago.
Garotinho has also long denied wrongdoing.
It should be noted than none of the three main candidates for president in October’s election - Dilma Rousseff, Jose Serra, and Marina Silva - have any corruption charges pending against them that could rule them ineligible in this year’s race.
Model for Other Countries
Brazil’s 'clean slate' law is being looked at closely by other countries, as well as the international community as a possible model.
Bolivia has a similar, less stringent law, and non-governmental officials in that country are looking to see how Brazil’s law is implemented to see if it could be a model to follow, according to officials in Brazil.
The 'clean slate' law is widely praised in many quarters for its early impacts, but it will take time to see if it can root out long entrenched corrupt politicians.
“The ‘clean slate’ law has already started to produce important results,” Reiter said.
“However, a law in itself cannot tackle the structural problems that impair a system. In order to achieve that, enforcement of the law will be critical and much broader and sustained reform is necessary.”
But with politicians campaigning now on the idea of having a ‘clean slate,’ the law already seems to have forced Brazilian voters to think differently about their electoral process, advocates argue.
“Today we have a national discussion about our politics thanks to this law, and the voter is analyzing the quality of the candidates based on new parameters to see if the candidate has the requirements to represent him or not,” Santos said.
“I have information that some political parties are now only admitting candidates if they meet the 'clean slate' law.”
Reiter said: “The good news is that the recent success of the ‘clean slate’ law has demonstrated and raised Brazilian society’s awareness of its role and potential as an agent of change.
Civil society in the country is clearly committed to this broader reform agenda and is pushing their representative institutions towards greater accountability, transparency and integrity.”
For the 136 million Brazilians who will cast a vote in elections a few weeks from now, the new law is likely viewed as a step in the right direction and couldn’t come a day too soon.
Research assistance provided by Gustavo Vieira in Rio de Janeiro.