Sunday, November 14, 2010

brazil's big winner: corruption

Brazil’s history has somewhat been made. The 55.7 million Brazilians who voted for Dilma Rousseff on October 31, didn’t just elect their first female president. They also chose to overlook the corruption entrenched in the eight-year-long rule of the Workers’ Party (PT) government.

No political party can claim a monopoly over corruption, endemic in the country ranked 69 out of 180 nations surveyed in Transparency International’s 2010 Corruption Perception Index. However, the Workers’ Party – once known for clean government – has been linked to all the nation’s major political scandals in recent years, showing it has become too cozy with power.

Amongst the most infamous is the 2005 Mensalão (“big monthly payment”), involving allegations that prominent PT members, including José Dirceu, Brazil’s former Chief of Staff, orchestrated a scheme to pay congressmen monthly allowances of around 30 thousand reais (roughly US$17.5 thousand) to guarantee votes for legislation.

Brazil’s Supreme Court indicted 40 people on charges of corruption, racketeering and money laundering in 2007. Nearly half of congressional representatives were kicked out as a result, but over a dozen people involved in the affair remained in the legislature and Dirceu, referred to by Brazil’s attorney-general as the “architect of a criminal organization”, played a central role in Rousseff’s campaign team.

In early 2006 former PT Finance Minister Antonio Palocci stepped down amidst allegations of corruption stemming from his management of da Silva’s 2002 presidential campaign and of breaking banking secrecy laws. Rumors now abound Palocci is likely to become Rousseff’s Chief of Staff.

In mid-September 2010, Erenice Guerra, who Rousseff has described as her “right hand woman”, and who took over as Chief of Staff when Rousseff stepped down to run for president, resigned amidst allegations of participation in a corruption scheme involving contracts favoring her son’s consulting firm. The “Erenice Scandal”, as the affair is now popularly known, came in the midst of accusations that members of Rousseff’s campaign illegally accessed the tax records of Veronica Serra, the opposition candidate’s daughter and of high-ranking members of his Party of Brazilian Social Democracy (PSDB). Both cases are currently under investigation by Brazil’s Federal Police.

Unlike her predecessor and mentor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, Rousseff did not rise through the ranks of the Worker’s Party. She was handpicked and imposed on the party by da Silva as soon as it became clear that his most likely successors were all implicated in corruption scandals. He then worked tirelessly to propel her from obscurity.

Constitutionally barred from running for a third presidential term, da Silva joked in March of this year he would run under a different name: “Dilma Rousseff”. For the past two years, the outgoing president has spared no efforts to transfer his political capital and approval rating – hovering at 80% – to his protégée, doing most of the talking on the campaign trail (often in violation of electoral law) and crediting Rousseff with some of the government’s accomplishments. National and international media have referred to her as “Lula in lipstick”.

Unsurprisingly, for PT supporters, Rousseff represents the continuation of da Silva’s social and economic policies, which helped elevate Brazil to the rank of eighth largest economy in the world and lift around 10% of the population out of poverty. This success story echoed principally among the rural and urban poor and migrants to the big cities – a majority of the electorate – for whom a vote for Rousseff was a vote for Brazil’s “best president ever”.

When the recent corruption scandals broke out José Serra, the PSDB opposition candidate, vigorously repeated that Rousseff was either incompetent for, as she claimed, “not knowing about them” or a criminal if she did know. Rousseff’s ratings wavered slightly in the polls which, analysts say, pushed her once certain first round win into the runoff on October 31.

An October 11 survey by Brazilian pollster Datafolha suggested that 75% of voters who initially intended to vote for Rousseff and then cast their ballot for another candidate on the first round of elections, on October 3, did so because of the corruption allegations involving the PT. But these were mainly well-educated, well-informed people, who comprise a minor percentage of Brazil’s electorate. According to analysts, for the majority of Brazilians, who often benefited directly from da Silva’s anti-poverty policies, allegations of corruption were not a priority. In addition, many people, rich and poor alike, still do not understand the complexities behind the scandals.

Rousseff’s bid was never really endangered and Serra never really stood a chance. Rousseff easily brushed off the affairs and pursued her path to victory with da Silva unwaveringly standing by her side. After all, winning against a president with above 80% approval ratings is difficult, or in this case, impossible.


  1. Very informative post, and so it goes.
    when you look at historical paralells to Brazil's current situation one wonders if the recent successes will eventually be eclipsed by the eventual mismanagement of a overly corrupt government ?

  2. Hello Jim,

    Thank you so much for your insight.
    I sincerely hope our leaders will work to reverse this pervasive and perverse "trend" which plagues our society. I am a firm believer that without efficiently addressing the issues of corruption and mismanagement the "rise of Brazil" is in danger of being not more than "short lived".

  3. Great article.

    Unfortunately corruption is not only present in Brazil, but in most -if not all- of Latam. From my experience living in Colombia and Mexico (two countries that have taken hard hits from government corruption scandals), presidents whose governments are involved in corruption don't achieve much during their mandates because most of the country's time and energy is spent on accusations. This, however, doesn't seem to be the case with Lula. Will Rousseff manage to follow on her predecesor's steps, despite continuing corruption scandals in her party?