Can Brazil buck the Latin American trend?

If Brazil is to avoid “cycling downwards” like other Latin American countries, political reform must move forward.

A man poses with cutouts of politicians dressed as prisoners in a cage as he protests against corruption in front of the Supreme Court during the
"By politicising Brazil's most respected legal institutions, Constitutional Amendments 33 and 37 pose a clear threat to one of the country's great hopes - a stable and efficacious rule of law," writes Gregory Michener [Reuters]

Slipping off the rails into illiberal democracy or authoritarianism is a well-worn cliché in Latin America. Here, the historical proclivity has been for governments to highjack their fledgling democracies, change the rules in mid-course and unwittingly lead their nations into downward cycles. 

Right now, numerous countries across Latin America are cycling downwards: Bolivarians (Bolivia, Ecuador, Nicaragua and Venezuela) continue to rewrite or interpret constitutions to fit their political designs. Re-entrenched oligarchies (Paraguay, Honduras and Guatemala) or dominant parties (Argentina) have re-asserted rule by capturing the judiciary or carrying out thinly disguised coups. In short, many Latin American countries are currently depleting what little institutional capital they have built up over the previous decades. Is Brazil at risk of a similar derailment? 

In Brazil, the Workers’ Party (PT) and its coalition partners are now vying for their fourth consecutive term in office, and entrenched power is leading to dangerous institutional brinksmanship. In recent weeks, Congress has threatened to neuter and disenfranchise the Supreme Court, Brazil’s powerful Public Prosecutor (Ministerio Publico), and the electoral competition. Brazil’s Congress has a poor reputation to begin with. Need it further strain its dignity by jeopardising Brazil’s democratic credentials and the country’s new found role as a serious global player? 

The Mensalao scandal 

Tensions between Congress and the Supreme Court are simmering due to last year’s indictment of 25 public officials and businessmen in the largest and most significant corruption scandal in Brazilian history, the Mensalao. Since the indictment, several of the Mensalao’s ringleaders – charged with money-laundering or buying votes in Congress – have re-assumed their legislative positions in spite of Supreme Court edicts. “Congress decides its own” was the message legislative leaders fired at the Supreme Court. 

Having ignored the rule of law, congressional leaders recently advanced proposals that would insulate political impunity. Constitutional Amendment 33 would allow Congress to review Supreme Court decisions when constitutional amendments are struck down; and Constitutional Amendment 37 seeks to take away investigative faculties from the country’s powerful and constitutionally autonomous Public Prosecutor (Ministerio Publico). This last measure would restrict investigative powers to the civil and federal police, both of whose chiefs respond to the Minister of Justice, a presidential appointee. 

The timing of these legislative manoeuvers suggests that the PT and its allies are firing a warning shot. The Mensaleirosare now appealing unprecedented sentences and six-figure fines before they face punishment within the coming months. Yet by politicising Brazil’s most respected legal institutions, Constitutional Amendments 33 and 37 pose a clear threat to one of the country’s great hopes – a stable and efficacious rule of law. 

Another great hope in jeopardy is the party competition that fuels Brazil’s vigorous democracy. Some believe it is too vigorous – Brazil’s 26-party Congress makes consensus-building unwieldy and majority coalitions render opposition voices faint. These voices seem even fainter under the crushing popularity of current and former PT Presidents, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. 

Brazil investigates popular ex-president

Now they may grow even weaker; a recent proposal backed by the government of President Rousseff (4.470/12threatens to deprive legislators who join new or fused parties the same proportion of government-subsidised media time they previously received. Stricter regulations to limit party-switching and the creation of new parties may be a good idea, but the timing of the current reform smacks of pre-election manipulation – changing the rules in mid-course. 

It also suggests exclusionary tactics; several promising candidates have cropped up and are threatening to shear off PT-leaning voters in the 2014 presidential contest. The most direct target of proposed legislation appears to be Marina Silva and her new party Rede Sustentabilidade (Sustainability Network). Silva placed third in the 2011 election and garnered impressive support. 

Does Brazil’s Congress represent Brazilians? 

While threats to Brazil’s electoral process and its rule of law appear out of character for the moderate Rousseff, they seem disconcertingly consistent with the nature of Brazil’s least credible branch of government – its National Congress. Brazil’s Congress is an astonishing place, particularly because it is so unrepresentative of everyday Brazilians. 

The first issue is its lopsided weighting of representation; it gives much more weight to rural Brazil despite the country’s high levels of urbanisation. In the 513-seat Lower House, the 11 least populous states together have half the population of Sao Paulo state, but 18 more seats in Congress (88 v 70 seats). 

The second issue is rich remuneration in a poor polity. At approximately $13,000 per month (plus a 13th salary), the wages of federal legislators (indeed most public servants’ salaries) are completely disproportionate to Brazil‘s median income, which hovers around $800 per month. 

The third issue is the unrepresentative nature of those who occupy Congress. Colouring the halls of Congress you will find soccer players, boxers and television stars, and even a professional clown who received the second largest tally of votes in Brazilian history. It is a place where more than a fifth of all legislators directly or indirectly own media outlets and approximately a third are being prosecuted for some type of crime, including vote-buying, fraud, tax evasion and corruption. One deputy and former mayor of Sao Paulo, Paulo Maluf, is wanted by Interpol for grand corruption. 

Allegations of financial crimes also surround the President of the Senate, Renan Calheiros. Popular protests against Calheiros – who narrowly escaped an ethics inquiry by resigning from the Senate in 2007 – prompted 1.6 million people to sign an Avaaz petition to force the Senator’s (unsuccessful) ouster. 

Not surprisingly, protests have also sprung up around the leadership of congressional committees. The Committee on Human Rights is chaired by Marco Feliciano, an Evangelical known for racist and homophobic comments, and who is currently proposing legislation for a “gay cure”; and the Lower House’s Committee on the Environment is presided by Blairo Maggi, a landowner nicknamed “the king of soya” who won Greenpeace’s “Golden Chainsaw” award in 2005. 

If parliament is a reflection of a country’s character and national direction, Brazil is in big trouble.  Fortunately and at the same time, disconcertingly, Brazil’s Congress exercises little power compared to the President. Approximately 85 percent of all legislation originates in the presidency. This is fortunate in the sense that extreme proposals in Congress can be vetoed or ignored completely. 

It is disconcerting in that Congress’ sense of institutional powerlessness may be partly to blame for its poor comportment and recruitment problems. If Brazil is to avoid “cycling downwards” like other Latin American countries, voters need to take action, and political reform – frequently discussed but rarely acted upon – must move forward. 

Gregory Michener is Assistant Professor of political science and administration at the Fundacao Getulio Vargas (EBAPE) in Rio de Janeiro.

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