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Corruption scandals in Brazil may signal push for better government

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Ueslei Marcelino/Reuters

(Read caption) Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during the closing of "March of the Daisies", an annual mobilization by women in Brazil, to demand sustainable development with justice, autonomy, equality and freedom, on the Esplanade of Ministries in Brasilia August 17.

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When President Dilma Rousseff took office in January, she counted on the largest congressional majority Brazil had ever witnessed – a super-majority that gave her more than three-fifth of votes Congress – enough to change the constitution. President Rousseff lost that super-majority when the PR and its block of 52 deputies broke with the government on Tuesday, reported Jornal Globo. The break follows the Ministry of Transportation and Infrastructure (DNIT) scandal, in which the government wrested control of the ministry from the PR after clear evidence of embezzlement and kickback schemes surfaced.

4 resignations in 3 months

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Yesterday’s resignation by Brazil's Minister of Agriculture, Wagner Rossi (PMDB), marked the fourth ministerial resignation in 8 months – a new record for Brazilian democracy. Mr. Rossi’s departure follows in the footsteps of Antonio Palocci (Chief of Staff, PT), Alfredo Nascimento (Minister of Transportation, PR), and Nelson Jobim (Defense). The Ministry of Tourism has also been purged, with the Federal Police having made over a dozen arrests in the face of ongoing investigations.

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Even before this latest resignation, the faxina (cleaning) of corruption jeopardized congressional support, particularly because most revelations fell on the heads of parties within the PT’s coalition. The latest resignation puts into question the support of the president’s key congressional ally, the PMDB, without whose support Rousseff would probably not be able to approve legislation in Congress.

The PMDB’s leader, Vice-President Michel Temer, says the resignation of Agriculture Minister Rossi responds to family issues. Yet a whistleblower within the Ministry of Agriculture has insisted that the building’s video system captured visits by lobbyists implicated in alleged payoffs. These videos have been seized by the Comptroller General (CGU) for further analysis. Whatever the reason for Rossi’s departure, the resignation may help clear the PMDB name and obviously heightens the party’s leverage over the Rousseff government.

Surprising follow-through

The most surprising element of all these scandals is Rousseff’s follow-through. In the past, scandals broke, leaders admitted no wrongdoing, insisted on getting back to the business of governing, and chastised the news media for its impudence. The 2006 Mensalao, a monthly vote-buying scheme that nearly brought down Lula’s first government, played out in this fashion. No one has yet gone to jail for the Mensalao, undoubtedly the most encompassing corruption scandal Brazil has experienced since re-democratization in 1988.

Yet with Rousseff it appears to be different. No criminal convictions have yet been made, but the president is insisting on investigative follow-through. This follow-through keeps the media spotlight trained on alleged perpetrators, an excellent means of “shaming” politicians and their parties, and one of the key reasons that we have seen resignations as opposed to mere passing storm clouds. It has also shown the spirited work of Brazil’s policing mechanisms, such as the Tribunal de Contas, the Comptroller General, the Federal Police, and the Corregedoria de Justiça.

Loss of congressional support or greater momentum for anti-corruption?

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Although the press has done excellent job in breaking scandals, greater citizen oversight is needed - a long-awaited freedom of information still awaits approval in the Senate. It remains to be seen whether Rousseff’s strategy will cost her the support of Congress, possibly jeopardizing the approval of further accountability-enhancing tools, such as the freedom of information law and a Truth Commission. An alternative hypothesis is that Rousseff’s actions may ignite even greater momentum for the cause of anti-corruption.

Whatever the result, Rousseff’s faxina appears to be a paradigm shift in the country’s political culture: from an acquiescence of corruption and impunity in exchange for governability, to growing intolerance.

--- 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.