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BRAZIL: Rousseff Winning Allies in Undeclared War on Corruption

Fabiana Frayssinet

RIO DE JANEIRO, Sep 5 2011 (IPS) - Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is starting to gain support for a war on corruption that she is quietly waging.

Dilma Rousseff greets beneficiaries of a government social programme. Credit: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR - president's office of Brazil

Dilma Rousseff greets beneficiaries of a government social programme. Credit: Roberto Stuckert Filho/PR - president's office of Brazil

As far as “cleaning up” goes, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva’s successor – also a member of the leftwing Workers’ Party (PT) – says she is only interested in wiping abject poverty off the map of this country of 192 million people, which is Latin America’s economic powerhouse.

But in the eight months she has been in office dozens of top-level officials, including her chief of staff, the agriculture and transportation ministers and the undersecretary of tourism, from the PT as well as allied parties, have been removed from their posts on charges of corruption.

This has earned Rousseff a reputation she may not want – a champion of the cause against corruption – and support from the streets she did not ask for, but which may come in handy.

“This is not Ancient Rome,” Rousseff retorted when the press asked about the many heads that were rolling in her cabinet. “This ranking to keep track of resignations is not appropriate for government,” she said.

Rousseff’s reluctance to acknowledge her fight against corruption has nothing to do with modesty; it stems from her attempt to preserve the delicate balance of power among the forces allied to the PT in Congress.

In the lower house, the PT is the party with the largest number of representatives – 86 out of a total of 513. And in the Senate, with 14 of the 81 seats, it is the second largest party, after the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), which holds 20.

These numbers mean the PT does not have a simple majority in either house and must rely on the support of the representatives of the 15 allied parties, which are widely diverse ideologically speaking.

So far, since the ministry “clean up” began – triggered by accusations that range from illicit enrichment to diversion of funds and administrative irregularities – the government has lost one of its allies, the Republican Party.

And within the ranks of the PMDB, the largest party in the governing coalition, discontent has grown to the point of threatening to block the measures necessary to pass the budget, at a time in which cutting public spending is crucial.

For political analyst Maurício Santoro, of the Getulio Vargas Foundation, it is not clear just how far the president is willing to go to fight corruption, or even if “she’s doing anything more than just reacting to accusations.”

But, whether intentionally or unintentionally, Rousseff is certainly “doing more than any other president” before her on this front, Santoro told IPS.

And Santoro is not the only one who thinks so. This month 22 senators formed the Inter-Party Front for Combating Corruption and Impunity precisely with the goal of ensuring parliamentary support for Rousseff, as a way of countering possible defections.

The government is being “blackmailed,” said Senator Pedro Simón, a PMDB politician who acts independently and is one of the founders of the Front, which has already begun coordinating strategies with organisations such as the Brazilian bar association and the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The senator called on all parties to “reflect on” the situation and urged the president to choose her ministers among candidates who are “qualified and have an honest background.”

In the opinion of the Front, Rousseff is on the right track and should continue removing any officials implicated in scandals, even if it means going against members of her own party, as in the case of former chief of staff Antonio Palocci, whose massive increase in wealth aroused suspicion.

“We made our support for President Dilma clear. If necessary, she can count on us to bring the Brazilian people out on the streets to back any measures she proposes to fight corruption,” said one of the Front members, Senator Randolfe Rodrigues, of the opposition leftwing Socialism and Freedom Party.

People are already mobilising on their own. A number of anti-corruption groups have emerged on the Facebook social networking site and are rapidly expanding. The group “Everyone Against Corruption,” for example, has received support from over 19,000 people for a public demonstration scheduled for Sept. 20 in Rio de Janeiro.

“I don’t support any political group or party in particular, but I do have this uncontrollable urge to put a STOP to this shameless corruption,” the group announces in Facebook. “I’m Brazilian and Carioca (from Rio de Janeiro) and I’m not going to stand for it anymore.”

The movement urges demonstrators to come to the march in green and yellow, the colours of the Brazilian flag.

According to former congressman Fernando Gabeira of the opposition Green Party (PV), all the government has done so far is remove a few ministers from office in response to accusations in the media.

“The government has simply reacted to an anti-corruption campaign, but it hasn’t yet led its own campaign against corruption,” Gabeira told IPS.

“There are powerful forces within the government that don’t want this anti-corruption movement to prosper,” he said in allusion to allied parties and politicians who “have been driven by the prospect of power and wealth.”

The PV leader is not optimistic.

“President Dilma seems to be torn between not aggravating her allies – some of whom are compromised by corruption – and satisfying the needs of the people, especially now that we face a global economic crisis,” Gabeira said.

In his view, the PT’s main goal is to keep up the strong levels of economic growth and continue forging ahead with the redistribution of wealth, and in that context, corruption is seen as merely “collateral damage.”

Gabeira compared Brazil with India, where strong anti-corruption movements are emerging, and said Brazil needs the same thing.

“We’ve realised that corruption is keeping Brazil and India from reaching their full potential in the world economy,” he said.

A study by the Federation of Industries of Sao Paulo found that every year Brazil loses 1.38 to 2.3 percent of GDP to corruption.

The March 2010 study estimated that the lost revenue – some 26 to 43 billion dollars – could cover the cost of sending 16.4 million new students to public school, supplying electricity to 24.6 million people or building sewer systems for 23.3 million households.

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