Brazil’s political elite waste no time in backtracking on promises to clean up corruption

Politicians heard the protesters’ message and moved quickly to do nothing

Although the protests that rocked Brazil last month have ended – for now at least – the country's politicians are making every effort to show they have heard the message sent by the street.

Well, not every effort.

True, the government has promised tens of billions of extra euros for the shabby public services on which most people rely.

Congress also voted to elevate corruption into a “heinous” crime and tackle nepotism, just two of a series of measures the normally incontinent body has rushed through as part of its new “positive agenda” designed to show it is serious about reform.


What to make though of the news that even as protesters demanded politicians clean up their act the head of the lower chamber in congress, Henrique Alves had a government jet fly himself and seven relatives from his home state to see Brazil play Spain in last month's final of Fifa's Confederations Cup in Rio de Janeiro?

Or that the senate’s president had his government aircraft take a detour so that he could attend the wedding of a colleague’s daughter at a beach resort popular with the country’s billionaires?

Renan Calheiros had been a prominent promoter of the so- called "positive agenda" in a bid to distract attention from the numerous allegations of corruption against him that so inflamed marchers.

However when confronted about his joyriding on an executive jet at taxpayer expense, Calheiros revealed a flash of his pre-protest arrogant self. Asked by journalists if he would be reimbursing the public purse, he replied: “Of course not!”

He later relented and said he would pay back the €11,000 his jaunt had cost. His behaviour, though, and that of Mr Alves reinforces suspicions that despite their sudden frenetic activity, Brazil’s politicians are not about to change their spots.

Special interests
For all the useful measures rushed through congress, its leadership has simultaneously managed to kick into the long grass far more meaningful proposals to clean up campaign financing and shift to a more rational voting system that would break the grip of special interests over Brazilian politics.

Plans to have these structural reforms in place before next year’s general election have already been set aside, with congressional leaders now promising to take them up again in 2015.

That should set alarm bells ringing. If civil society does not react to this procrastinating quickly and forcefully, there is a very high risk that real reform will be put back on congress’s very long finger where it has languished for years.

It is hard to escape the impression that for all the sound and fury in Brasília, in the long-running stand-off between Brazil's citizens and their politicians, the politicians are holding their ground, despite the largest offensive by the citizenry in decades.

The political class have been able to shunt the reform movement into a siding so quickly – despite clear widespread public support – in part because President Dilma Rousseff botched her own efforts to force it through.

Her first proposal for an assembly to rewrite the constitution was shot down as unconstitutional. Her fall-back position of a plebiscite on specific reforms died for a lack of necessary support in a congress she has antagonised with her barely disguised disdain for its preening, grasping ways.

Rousseff, an economist who never stood for office before running for the presidency in 2010, is having a poor crisis, exposing the risk of elevating a technocrat to a leading political role.

She has displayed an alarming lack of political nous and has been poorly advised by her inner circle.

A micro-managing centraliser with an abrasive personality she now finds herself with few friends when she needs them most. This week even her trade union allies added to her woes, staging only the fourth general strike in the country’s history.

Calls to drop president
With her popularity tanking, there are calls within her Workers Party to dump the president and instead run her predecessor and political benefactor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, as its candidate next year in order to guarantee its hold on power.

He says he does not intend to return; with 15 months before voting, Rousseff has time to recover.

Lula must be hoping she does. After all, he forced her candidacy on a sceptical party and transformed his enormous popularity into votes for his anointed successor. Such is his charisma and enduring appeal, Lula would almost certainly triumph were he to run again – but doing so would also be an admission of failure.