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Brazilians march against corruption to mark independence day

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(Read caption) Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff attends the presentation of new general officers at the Planalto Palace in Brasilia August 16, 2011. She has been hailed by supporters for purging her government of corrupt officials.

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The performance of Brazil’s Congress, and particularly the governing coalition, makes one wonder whether the nation’s deliberative process should be moved somewhere else – far away from the alleged ‘representatives of the people.’

Congress is where the government’s coalition ‘allies’ select their robber baron cabinet ministers, the same ones that have been resigning one after the next in the wake of President Dilma Rousseff’s spring cleaning. Yet despite the rash of corruption scandals over the past months, and one particularly egregious ‘secret vote’ that recently absolved a deputy of grand corruption charges, a few bright spots have begun to appear. These include a parliamentary movement against corruption and a September 7 “March Against Corruption” in support of President Rousseff’s efforts to purge Brasilia.

The Super-Party Front Against Corruption

A group of parliamentarians led by Senator Pedro Simon (of the PMDB) have announced the creation of a “Super-Party Front Against Corruption.” The movement supports the faxina or cleaning that began shortly after President Rousseff took power. According to the Jornal Globo, Mr. Simon asks that the president “dialogue with us, chat, sit together to find a solution.” Simon’s plea does not sound like unconditional support for the fight against corruption, but rather a return to the amiguismo and ‘consensus impunity’ status quo. But at least the establishment of a ‘front’ against corruption is a promising sign that incentives are moving in the right direction.

Can Electoral Rewards for Ethical Behavior Change Congress?

One deputy reinforces the idea that incentives to prioritize ethics do exist. Jose Reguffe, a 38-year-old deputy from Brasilia, is an ethical crusader who gave up half his staff, his complete travel allowance, and part of his ‘extra’ salary because he’d rather save public money than receive funds he claims he doesn’t need. In proportional terms, Mr. Reguffe won more votes than any other member of Congress (266,500), and with very little campaign money. The clear inference is that Brazilians reward honesty and ethical behavior. Although perhaps not the most novel conclusion for readers used to seeing dishonest behavior punished, it is highly significant for a country where assumed or proven dishonesty often has little bearing on election results or political support more generally.

Unchecked Impunity

Last week’s secret vote in the Lower House, which successfully absolved Deputy Jaqueline Roriz of corruption charges, provides a point-in-case of the sort of impunity that has long muddied the reputation of Congress. In 2006 Ms. Roriz was caught red-handed on tape accepting a bribe of 50,000 reais ($33,000) in public money. Yet deputies justified the 235-166 vote in favor of absolution by claiming that Roriz had not yet been vested as a federal deputy when the film was shot – instead she was a state deputy at the time. The fact that a proven thief of public money continues to pose as a public servant seems to have escaped Congress’ sense of higher justice, much less its sense of irony. Irony of ironies, the ‘representatives of the people’ employed a very unrepresentative institutional mechanism – the ‘secret parliamentary vote’ – to endorse another desolating setback for parliament.

The March Against Corruption

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But there is increasing movement against corruption and impunity. Today is Brazilian Independence Day, the 7th of September, and marches against corruption are set to take place across Brazil. The movement, simply called the “March Against Corruption” (marcha contra a corrupção) has been quietly accumulating supporters through social media, including Youtube (and here) and Facebook.

Organization against corruption is a positive step forward. As I wrote about a couple of posts ago, Brazilians have a reputation for passivity in the face of injustice. Yet it remains to be seen whether the march will prove little more than a fleeting protest. Discouragingly, the mainstream media has been providing very little coverage of the event.

The hands-off approach of the media makes perfect sense, however; zealous coverage of recent corruption scandals has led government to once more brandish the ‘media reform’ card. In the wake of the government’s efforts to purge corruption from federal ministries, especially those most involved in preparations for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, it seems the strategy is now to use the media as a scapegoat. This is the media’s cue to play nice. Stay tuned.

--- Greg Michener, based in Rio de Janeiro, writes the blog, Observing Brazil. He is currently writing a book on Freedom of Information in Latin America for Cambridge University Press.

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