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  • Vera Galante


Tom Jobim, the famous songwriter who wrote The Girl from Ipanema, once said that Brazil was not for beginners. Indeed. It requires a lot of experience to really understand the country, and even then one is unsure whether or not they know what they’re doing.

The current political scenario is apparently a total mess. In order to begin to understand it, we should discuss the Presidential System practiced in Brazil. Brazil has one President elected every 4 years, with the possibility of one reelection. The last three Presidents were reelected – Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Lula and Dilma Rousseff (who was impeached shortly after being inaugurated for the second term). Michel Temer was her Vice-President and is currently the President. Next elections are scheduled for October 2018. The system so far is pretty much like any other presidential system in the world. There are 35 registered political parties in the country (and countless others seeking registration), but 28 represented in the National Congress. That number is too high and provides the President little voluntary support. Congress members thus amass a lot of power – a vote for the President’s proposal means favors for his/her state. These favors usually come in the form of funds given by the Federal Government for the congress members’ pet projects.

These exchange of favors provoke, as expected, friction with the economic team, who try to keep the budget under control. The Brazilian internal debt is currently around 50% of its GDP, but governments have historically done nothing to contain or decrease this figure. The Finance Ministry was able to pass a budget that limited federal spending, but negotiations with the Congress have highly compromised the integrity of the annual budget.

To exemplify, let’s take the most recent “negotiation” between the President and the Congress, specifically the Lower House. President Temer was charged by Brazil’s Prosecutor General on two different counts for the second time: racketeering and obstruction of justice. Brazilian laws state that the President can only be prosecuted by the Supreme Court with permission from the Lower House. If two thirds of the 513 members of the Lower House agreed, he would be tried. He had managed to dodge the accusations the first time and there was no reason to believe that he would not be successful again.

The President, as expected, denied all of the charges and started to negotiate with the Lower House to get the necessary votes to halt the charges. The first charges were dismissed at the House giving him 263 favorable votes, an ample majority. The second time was a little tighter, but still gave him 251 votes. All this cost the Federal Government (actually the taxpayer) – not only direct financing of specific projects, but uncomfortable, yet necessary reforms that were sent for Congress to appreciate.

One of these is the Social Security Reform Bill currently in the Lower House. This is a much needed reform that will impact retirement salaries paid by the government to every worker who retires under the Social Security regime – virtually every worker in the country, not only the civil servants. This bill was part of the bargain for votes and the government, to the chagrin of the Ministry of Finance, has agreed to make a few articles of the bill more flexible.

The much needed political reform (one that would restrict the number of political parties and modernize the system) is also up for negotiations. Of course the current members of Congress don’t want to give up their privileges, such as immunity (they can only be prosecuted or tried by the Supreme Court, even if a crime is committed before their term in Congress), additional pay for their offices, travels, even housing and fuel. On top of these very high profile bills, there are others that would benefit their home states only and are exchanged shamelessly for a vote.

As outrageous as this sounds, the practice has been going on since the promulgation of the Constitution in 1988, after 20+ years of military dictatorship. Former President Lula has been very vocal accusing President Temer of buying out representatives in exchange for a vote, but he and other presidents did the same during their terms. Not to defend the practice, but the current president, having been a representative since 1987 and has been chosen the Speaker of the House three non-consecutive times. He knows the ins and outs of Congress like no one else and can work the representatives with extreme efficiency. Even though a lot of money and favors were spent to bail him twice, he is the President who spends less in buying support for himself.

This shady operation to procure votes has been in place for years. However, the population is less tolerant with the practice, after Operação Lava-Jato (Operation Car-Wash) and all the others derived from it started. There is a sense of indignation among the members of civil society and the realization, for probably the first time, that all these corruption scandals mean that the general population that the embezzlement of public monies translates in fewer and lower quality services the population is entitled to. However, there is a sense of passivity and astonishment that prevents actual riots and more violent protests.

This explains a lot of the current polarization between the two self-declared candidates for president of the country in next year’s elections: Lula and Bolsonaro. While Lula, a former president who represented the self-made man who rose in the ranks by his own boot straps and focused on social programs that brought the poor out of poverty, is very popular among those who miss the abundance during his presidency (he inherited a country with controlled inflation, good financial prospects and all the tools necessary to launch the social programs he did), Jair Bolsonaro represents the tough guy who will govern the country with iron fist and very conservative ideas against corruption and social unrest, such as the dire security situation that major cities in Brazil face.

Lula has many followers, but faces many corruption charges and has already been sentenced to 9 years in prison and is now waiting for review of the sentence by the Federal District Court. If confirmed or increased, he will not be able to run for president. His party doesn’t have a viable candidate that would be able to attract the number of votes their leader, Lula, would.

Bolsonaro currently belongs to the Social Christian Party, but it expected that he will change parties, seeking one that will give him more support as a candidate. However, no major party wants him in their ranks. What this will mean is that if elected, he will have to pay back the support he received from other parties with the same favors we see President Temer doing for the congress – providing the parties with ministries, money in the budget for projects in their home state, etc.

In fact, any other president who is elected will fatally do the same when payback time arrives. Unless a major political reform happens, we will not see any change to the current levels of corruption in the government.

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